From the Physics Today Archives (Nobels of the past) - September 2015

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By Amanda Nelson, Associate Archivist

Nobel winner Maria Goeppert-Mayer.We are less than a week away from the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. This prize has been awarded to 199 Nobel Laureates since 1901 and was the first prize stated in Alfred Nobel’s will, which funds the awards. Physics Today has helped expand the reach and understanding of the winner’s research since the magazine’s inception. Before the winner is announced for 2015, here is a small sampling of articles related to the prize, including biographies on Nobel laureates. These articles will be free content for the next six months.


Physicists share in Nobel prizes in three disciplines – December 1977

Maria Goeppert‐Mayer—two‐fold pioneer – February 1982 - When in 1963 she received the Nobel Prize in Physics, Maria Goeppert Mayer was the second woman in history to win that prize—the first being Marie Curie, who had received it sixty years earlier—and she was the third woman in history to receive the Nobel Prize in a science category. This accomplishment had its beginnings in her early exposure to an intense atmosphere of science, both at home and in the surrounding university community, a community that provided her with the opportunity to follow her inclinations and to develop her remarkable talents under the guidance of the great teachers and scholars of mathematics and physics. Throughout her full and gracious life, her science continued to be the theme about which her activities were centered, and it culminated in her major contribution to the understanding of the structure of the atomic nucleus, the spin–orbit‐coupling shell model of nuclei.

Although Maria Mayer made significant contributions (leading to the Nobel Prize) starting in 1930, it was 30 years before she received a full‐time faculty appointment.

The Nobel Prizes at 90 – November 1992 - When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced on 14 October that Georges Charpak of CERN is the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multiwire proportional chamber,” the academy was continuing the process begun in 1901, when the physics prize was awarded to Wilhelm Röntgen for the discovery of x rays. Over the ensuing nine decades, the selection process has been remarkable for its secrecy, the care with which it is done, and the high quality of the research honored.

Choosing Nobel Prize winners is an exhausting, complex process that culminates in the award ceremony each December in Stockholm. For the 90th anniversary 130 previous laureates celebrated along with the newest winners.

A Nobel Tale of Postwar Injustice – September 1997 - In November 1945, three months after the end of World War II, a narrow majority of the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission. The award was and still remains controversial, primarily because Hahn's Berlin colleagues, the chemist Fritz Strassmann and the physicist Lise Meitner, were not included. Probably, Strassmann was ignored because he was not a senior scientist. Meitner's exclusion, however, points to other flaws in the decision process, and to four factors in particular: the difficulty of evaluating an interdisciplinary discovery, a lack of expertise in theoretical physics, Sweden's scientific and political isolation during the war, and a general failure of the evaluation committees to appreciate the extent to which German persecution of Jews skewed the published scientific record.

Recently released Swedish documents reveal why Lise Meitner, codiscoverer of nuclear fission, did not receive the 1946 physics prize for her theoretical interpretation of the process.