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A Tradition Flowers: The Maria Goeppert Mayer Interdisciplinary Symposium at SDSC


aria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972) was the third woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize. She shared the prize in physics in 1963 with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. It recognized her development of the shell model of atomic nuclei (in the late 1940s), and it came seven years after her election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and three years after she began her first full-time paying job, as a professor at the new campus of the University of California, San Diego. "There is an annual seminar in her honor, held in the Physics Department, that has been going on far longer," said SDSC computational quantum chemist Kim K. Baldridge, "and the UCSD Library has also created a memorial exhibit of her life and work, but we wanted to establish a living memorial that would particularly exemplify the interdisciplinarity of Goeppert Mayer’s work."

Figure 1. An Interdisciplinary Research Program
Stacey F. Bent of Stanford spoke at the Sixth Maria Goeppert-Mayer Symposium about stably attaching organic molecules to silicon, germanium, or diamond surfaces using chemical vapor deposition, which can lead to both novel sensors and elements of half a dozen new technologies.

That interdisciplinarity was called forth by the puzzles of the times. Maria Goeppert was among a very few women admitted to study at the University of Göttingen in 1924, when quantum mechanics was just being developed. Her teachers included Max Born, James Franck, Werner Heisenberg, and David Hilbert, and her fellow students included the future biologist Max Delbrück, physicists Paul Dirac, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Victor Weisskopf, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, and the man she would marry in 1930, chemist Joseph Mayer.

When Joseph and Maria Mayer went in that same year to Johns Hopkins, American physics was far behind its European cousin. But, as Sharon Bertsch McGrayne wrote in Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (1998), "Hopkins was like Göttingen in one vital respect. The collaboration between chemists, physicists, and mathematicians was unusually close, and Maria could piece together a research program by linking the different disciplines."

Baldridge organized the first memorial symposium in 1996, an all-day seminar featuring a small number of major speakers. The second, in 1997, added a poster session that featured the work of students of the speakers as well as many UCSD graduate and undergraduate students. By 1998, the symposium had attracted a spectrum of sponsors, posters from around the country, and a full house in a large auditorium. The sixth "MGM Symposium," as it has come to be called, was held on March 3, 2001. It was sponsored by the American Chemical Society, the National Biomedical Computational Resource, Pfizer Incorporated, UCSD, and SDSC. Baldridge has also added a co-organizer, chemist Tammy Dwyer of the University of San Diego.


The latest in the series featured five major speakers. Each talk began with a rather broad and sweeping question: How did life arise on this planet and perhaps others? Could there be somewhere in the universe where new matter is being created? Can organic molecules be used to extend the properties of semiconductor chips? What are the prospects for nanomachinery in the next millennium?

Uniting the seemingly disparate topics was the way in which each speaker went from the broad and general to the fine-grained and specific matter of each talk. "I think it was a particularly fitting tribute to the memory of Maria Mayer," said UCSD chemist Marjorie Caserio, "because her own contributions ranged from the very general–the nuclear shell model–to the quite specific, like the two-photon emission in beta decay and the electronic structure of benzene."

The speakers, their affiliations, and their topics were:

Winifred M. Huo,Chief of the Computational Chemistry Branch, NASA Ames Research Center: A computational chemistry study of prebiotic processing.

Margaret Burbidge, Center for Astronomy and Space Studies, UCSD: Quasars and active galaxies: Detection of recently created matter?

Stacey F. Bent, Chemical and Electrical Engineering, Stanford University: Integrating organic materials with semiconductor devices (Figure 1).

Roya Maboudian, Chemical Engineering, UC Berkeley: Manipulating surface forces in silicon micromachining.

Sally K. Ride, Physics, UCSD: America’s future in space.

About 150 people attended the symposium, which also featured a poster session. The award for best poster went to Julie Mitchell, a postdoctoral researcher in bioinformatics at SDSC, whose poster displayed her rapid method of analyzing shape complementarity in proteins. Baldridge noted that, now that the annual symposium is well established, the organizers have applied for additional funding from the National Science Foundation. "With that," she said, "we have every expectation of being able to present more ambitious programs next year and in the future." –MM

Project Leaders
Kim K. Baldridge
Tammy Dwyer
University of San Diego