Work during World War II

At Columbia University, where Joseph Mayer had been appointed to an associate professorship in chemistry, Maria Mayer's position at first was even more tenuous than at Johns Hopkins. The chairman of the Physics Department, George Pegram, arranged for an office for her, but she had no appointment. This was the beginning of a close relationship between the Mayers and the Harold Ureys, a relationship which was to continue throughout her life, as they always seemed to turn up in the same places in later years. Willard Libby became a good friend, and it was at Columbia that she first began to come under the influence of Enrico Fermi, although she had already met him in her first summer in the United States (1930) at the University of Michigan Special Summer Session in Physics. The Mayers also saw much of I. I. Rabi and Jerrold Zacharias during their years at Columbia. She quickly put to work her talent for problem solving when Fermi suggested that she attempt to predict the valence-shell structure of the yet-to-be- discovered transuranium elements. By making use of the very simple Fermi- Thomas model of the electronic structure of the atom, she came to the conclusion that these elements would form a new chemical rare-earth series. In spite of the oversimplifications of the particular model, this subsequently turned out to be a remarkably accurate prediction of their qualitative chemical behavior. In December 1941, she was offered her first real position:half-time job teaching science at Sarah Lawrence College, and she organized and presented a unified science course, which was developed as she went along during that first presentation. She continued, on an occasional basis, to teach part time at Sarah Lawrence throughout the war. She was offered a second job opportunity in the spring of 1942 by Harold Urey,who was building up a research group devoted to separating U 235 from natural uranium as part of the work toward the atomic bomb. This ultimately became known as Columbia University's Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Project. She accepted this second half-time job, which gave her an opportunity to use her knowledge of chemical physics. Her work included research on the thermodynamic properties of uranium hexafluoride and on the theory of separating isotopes by photochemical reactions, a process that, however, did not develop into a practical possibility at that time (The much later invention of the laser has reopened that possibility.) Edward Teller arranged for her to participate in a program at Columbia referred to as the Opacity Project, which concerned the properties of matter and radiation at extremely high temperatures and had a bearing on the development of the thermonuclear weapon. Later, in the spring of 1945, she was invited to spend some months at Los Alamos, where she had the opportunity to work closely with Teller, whom she considered to be one of the world's most stimulating collaborators. In February of 1946, the Mayers moved to Chicago where Joe had been appointed Professor in both the Chemistry Department and the newly formed Institute for Nuclear Studies of The University of Chicago. At the time, the University's nepotism rules did not permit the hiring of both husband and wife in faculty positions, but Maria became a voluntary Associate Professor of Physics in the Institute, a position which gave her the opportunity to participate fully in activities at the University. Teller had also accepted an appointment at The University of Chicago, and he moved the Opacity Project there, giving Maria Mayer the opportunity to continue with this work. It was accommodated in the postwar residuum of the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University where, in its heyday during the war, the initial work on the nuclear chain reaction had been carried out. She was hired as a consultant to the Metallurgical Laboratory so that she could continue her participation in this project, and several students from Columbia who had become graduate students at Chicago worked under her guidance. The Metallurgical Laboratory went out of existence to make way for establishing Argonne National Laboratory on July 1, 1946, under the aegis of the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. She was offered and was pleased to accept a regular appointment as Senior Physicist (half time) in the Theoretical Physics Division of the newly formed laboratory. The main interest at Argonne was nuclear physics, a field in which she had had little experience, and so she gladly accepted the opportunity to learn what she could about the subject. She continued to hold this part-time appointment throughout her years in Chicago, while maintaining her voluntary appointment at the University. The Argonne appointment was the source of financial support for her work during this very productive period of her life, a period in which she made her major contribution to the field of nuclear physics, the nuclear shell model, which earned her the Nobel Prize. Since the mission of Argonne National Laboratory at the time was, in addition to research in basic science, the development of peaceful uses of nuclear power, she also became involved in applied work there. She was the first person to undertake the solution by electronic computer of the criticality problem for a liquid metal breeder reactor. She programmed this calculation (using the Monte Carlo method) for ENIAC, the first electronic computer, which was located at the Ballistic Research Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground. A summary of this work was published in 1951 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Applied Mathematics, Series 12:19-20). While carrying on her work at Argonne, she continued her voluntary role at The University of Chicago by lecturing toe classes, serving on committees, directing thesis students, anal participating in the activities at the Institute for Nuclear Studies (now known as the Enrico Fermi Institute). The University had. pulled together in this Institute a stellar assembly of physicists and chemists, including Fermi, Frey, and Libby, as well as Teller and the Layers. Greg or Wentzel joined the faculties of the Physics Department and Institute later, and the families quickly became very close, one outcome being the joining of the families by marriage of Maria Ann to the Wentzels' son. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who had been on the faculty of the Astronomy Department for many years, also joined the Institute. A stream of young and very bright physical scientists poured into the Institute, and the atmosphere was stimulating to the extreme. To add to this exciting atmosphere, which in some ways must have been reminiscent of Goettingen in the early days, her former teacher and friend, James Franck, was already a member of the University's Chemistry Department. | The activities in the Institute reflected the interests of the leading lights, interests that were very broad indeed, ranging from nuclear physics and chemistry to astrophysics and from cosmology to geophysics. The interdisciplinary character of the Institute was well suited to the breadth of her own activities over the past, so that her Chicago years were the culmination of her variety of scientific experience. In keeping with this, she turned her attention at first to completing and publishing some earlier work in chemical physics, including work with Jacob Bigeleisen on isotopic exchange reactions. Bigeleisen had collaborated with her in other work at Columbia University and at this time was a fellow of the Institute. At the same time, she began to give attention to nuclear physics.

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