Ceremony honors Maria Goeppert-Mayer, legacy of UChicago physics

The late Maria Goeppert-Mayer was a pioneering scientist at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory whose research on the structure of atoms earned her the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The Division of the Physical Sciences recently celebrated her legacy, with students, faculty and University leaders packing the Kersten Physics Teaching Center to attend a ceremony celebrating Goeppert-Mayer and the history of physics research at the University of Chicago.

Prof. Young-Kee Kim, chair of the Physics Department, emphasized the importance of commemorating exceptional women in science. Goeppert-Mayer’s accomplishments are represented in an exhibition outside a first-floor lecture hall in Kersten that is now named in her honor.

“We have always stereotyped—you think of physicists or scientists and have Einstein or that kind of figure” in mind, Kim said. With the new Goeppert-Mayer exhibition and lecture hall, Kim said, “if a student comes to the University of Chicago to study physics, they’ll see her face a thousand times, which will help them to rid themselves of stereotypes.”

A theoretical physicist, Goeppert-Mayer was on the UChicago faculty from 1946 to 1959 as part of the Institute for Nuclear Studies (later the Enrico Fermi Institute) and also worked at Argonne. In 1948 she published her first paper explaining nuclear shell structures—how neutrons and protons were structured within atomic nuclei—research that earned her a share of the 1963 Nobel Prize.

Since the inception of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 29 of the 203 winners have been associated with the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. But only two of those 203 winners of physics’ top prize have been women: Goeppert-Mayer as well as Marie Curie, who received the award in 1903.

Edward “Rocky” Kolb, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences, said Goeppert-Mayer’s legacy will be celebrated again next fall when the lecture hall is completed and the first lecture held in her honor.

“This will acknowledge not only her work but will also celebrate and inspire women in the sciences,” he said.