Lab Results

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Being a female nuclear physicist in the 1930s wasn’t easy. Even though Maria Goeppert Mayer ended up winning the Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work on the structure of atomic nuclei and was featured on a postage stamp in 2010, she spent most of her life working for free.

In 1941, President Constance Warren offered Mayer her first paid position, teaching math at Sarah Lawrence. (Technically, the gifted physicist worked for Johns Hopkins University in the 1930s, but she was never given an office, title, or salary.)

Mayer loved teaching at Sarah Lawrence, but in 1943 she was called to work on the Manhattan Project. Though wary of the possible ramifications of her work, Mayer worked at Columbia’s Substitute Alloys Materials Lab studying the separation of uranium isotopes, which would prove critical to understanding and building a nuclear reactor.

In 1963, she shared the Nobel Prize for developing the “nuclear shell” model of atomic nuclei, which explains why some elements have many different isotopes while others do not. Though she was unable to return to her position at SLC, Mayer remained devoted to the institution, citing her dedication to “teaching as it is done at Sarah Lawrence—not the mere imparting of knowledge, but the human contact with developing personalities.”

She died in 1972. In September, Sarah Lawrence celebrated the 50th anniversary of her Nobel Prize, dedicating the Maria Mayer Physics Laboratory and hosting a faculty panel, reception, and lecture on superstring theory by renowned physicist Sylvester James Gates, Jr.