Today is the birthday of Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Nobel Laureate in Physics 1963. After Marie Curie’s award in 1903, Maria is the second woman to win a Nobel in physics. Donna Strickland became the third woman Nobel prize-winner in physics in 2018. Roughly half a century between them!
Goeppert-Mayer won her award for finding a mathematical model for the structure of the nucleus. Interestingly she submitted her paper to the Physical Review 3 months before a group of three male scientists submitted similar work. Their work was published first! Maria Goeppert-Mayer endured many years of working for nothing because she was a woman and did not obtain a paid university position until 1942, twelve years after winning her doctorate. When offered a position at the Argonne National Laboratory in 1946, she replied, “I don’t know anything about nuclear physics”. Despite this self-deprecation she had already predicted that the undiscovered trans-uranic elements would form a series similar to the rare earth metals, would go on to programme the first electronic computer ENIAC to solve complex problems on nuclear reactor cooling and later develop her model of the nucleus.
Maria was educated at Gottingen University and would have met Emmy Noether, described by Einstein and others as the greatest woman mathematician in the history of mathematics. Few people know about Noether’s work. I never heard about her during my own studies in physics at university, yet Noether’s theorem concerns all the conservation laws. Essentially she proved that the Law of Conservation of Energy must exist. She provided the mathematical logic to explain why there is a law of conservation of momentum. In principle, Noether’s theorem explains why there is any physics at all, so it is worth pondering why we know so little about her.
Thinking about Goeppert-Mayer’s work in nuclear physics reminded me that another famous woman in STEM working on the nucleus was born just 100 years ago. Her work was not about the atom’s nucleus but was on nucleic acid, DNA, and she was of course Rosalind Franklin. Franklin presented a paper at King’s College London in November 1951 suggesting the twin helical structure of DNA, two years before Crick and Watson published their work. Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958, is perhaps the most famous ever non-recipient of a Nobel Prize. She was overlooked by the Nobel Committee for 1962 at a time when the current rule about not awarding prizes posthumously did not exist, meaning that she was almost certainly disregarded because she was a woman.