Maria Goeppert-Mayer was one of only two women to win the Nobel prize for physics thus far, the other being Marie Curie. And yet her name isn’t anywhere near as well known as Marie Curie’s. She also worked on the Manhattan Project and spent time during her long career with Enrico Fermi, Max Born, Edward Teller, and many other physics luminaries.
She was “other” in another way too. She followed her husband from university to university, and due to prevailing rules against hiring both husband and wife, often had to take a non-faculty position, sometimes even with no salary. Yet being the other, or plus-one, seemed to give her what every pure scientist desires, the freedom to explore. And explore she did, widely. She was always on the cutting edge, and all the time working with the leading luminaries of physics. For a scientist, her story reads like it’s too good to be true, which is what makes it so delightful to read about.
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When we think of role models, it’s easy to categorize them narrowly on the basis of their skill set. We might say that he’s a great mathematician, or that she is an excellent chemist. Some role models are admirable on a deeper, human level. These are the kinds of heroes who obliterate all the obstacles dropped in front of them to tirelessly pursue their interests and devote their lives to doing the kind of stuff that makes the world better for everyone.
Italian Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini is this kind of role model. Her scientific curiosity and unconventional thinking led her to discover nerve growth factor (NGF), a naturally occurring protein which we now know is responsible for nerve growth and regulation. Rita’s discovery provided great insight into the way the nervous system develops. The discoveries that she made underlie much of modern research into neurologically degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and NGF is used experimentally the treatment of both.
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Few births are easy. Even fewer result in a Nobel Prize, and hardly any at all are the work of three men. This 1965 film from the AT&T archives is a retrospection on the birth of the transistor nine years after its creators, [Walter Brattain], [John Bardeen], and [William Shockley] received a Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery and implementation of the transistor effect.
The transistor is the result of the study of semiconductors such as germanium. Prior to the research that led directly to the transistor, it was known that the conductivity of semiconductors increases when their temperature is raised. The converse is true for metals such as tungsten. Semiconductor conductivity also increases when they are exposed to light. Another key to their discovery is that when a metal such as copper is in contact with a semiconductor, conductivity is less in one direction than the other. This particular property was exploited in early radio technology as seen in crystal radios, for copper oxide rectifiers used in telephony, and for microwave radar in WWII.
After WWII, AT&T’s Bell Labs put a lot of time and research into the study of semiconductors, as their properties weren’t fully understood. Researchers focused on the simplest semiconductors, silicon and germanium, and did so in two areas: bulk properties and surface properties. During this time, [Shockley] proposed the field effect, supposing that the electrons near the surface of a semiconductor could be controlled under the influence of an external electric field.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Genesis of the Transistor”