The Italian genius of physics, Ettore Majorana, boarded a ship to Naples in Palermo on March 26 1938 and disappeared without trace. At the young age of thirty-one, he was already considered a behemoth of theoretical physics. His mentor Enrico Fermi even compared him to Newton. The young physicist’s body was never retrieved. Despite the possibility he committed suicide, it was extremely unusual for a suicide victim to board with a passport and a sum of money worth tens of thousands of euros in today’s currency.
The mystery surrounding Majorana’s death deepened when a number of his acquaintances started to claim they occasionally saw him from afar on the street, even after he had been given up for dead. There was talk of him entering a monastery, which led his family to ask for him in Christian residences and refuges, carrying his picture with them, but without success. Others believed that he travelled all the way to Argentina, where he was seen several times and was reportedly even caught in a photograph. As is often the case with unusual scientists, theories went around that he had been kidnapped by the Russians and forced to build an atomic bomb, or in some cases even by Martians. The most amusing of the theories however, was the science-fiction hypothesis that he had invented a way of entering a parallel universe.
The Via Panisperna boys
The first encounter between Majorana and Fermi, when young Ettore first entered the famous Physics Institute on Via Panisperna in Rome, is still a source of inspiration for many young scientists today. It was there that Fermi, like Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, systematically brought together young geniuses in mathematics and physics, providing them with a peaceful environment that enabled them to tackle in depth questions they considered crucial to the future of science. They were able to have a lot of fun, strange as that might seem to someone who doesn’t spend day after day with equations. They raced each other at solving an overwhelmingly complicated differential equation or a problem in atomic physics. It was the time when Italy, largely because of Fermi’s group, was at the summit of international science.
When Ettore first visited Fermi at the Institute, the latter was in the middle of several months of calculations to solve an important problem in atomic physics, work which he presented to his young colleague. It was in the pre-computer era and complicated equations took enormous amounts of time and energy. Fermi explained to Majorana why for the time being he was only able to solve a smaller part of the problem. Ettore listened carefully and asked a couple of questions. Then he vanished. The next day he came back to the Institute and asked Fermi to show him again the results it had taken several months to obtain. He took a scribbled piece of paper out of his pocket, did some additional calculations and praised Fermi for having obtained the correct results. He walked over to the blackboard and, before an audience of astounded physicists, wrote down a mathematical transformation that changed Fermi’s complicated problem into a universally known equation, now found in textbooks across the world.
The pioneer of many groundbreaking ideas he never published
Majorana was born in August 1906 in Catania, Sicily. It soon became obvious that he was an exceptional child. He was remarkably bright and able to solve complicated equations from memory. At the same time he was very timid. His mother came from a wealthy family and his father established the city’s first telephone company, later nationalized during fascist rule. The family moved from Catania to Rome where Ettore’s father worked as a telecommunications inspector.
Ettore began his studies at the early age of seventeen to become an engineer but changed to physics after taking his degree and soon earned a PhD. His first scientific paper was published in 1928, followed by a handful of other articles mostly in Italian. He was extremely introverted, which presented a major personal problem and most probably contributed to his reluctance to communicate new and important findings to the general public. He was reportedly the first to hypothesize the existence of the neutron but despite his mentor’s encouragement, never published his work. The Nobel Prize for the discovery of the neutron was awarded to the English scientist James Chadwick in 1935. Perhaps Majorana thought it was too simple and obvious to report it to other scientists.
In 1933 Majorana was awarded a scholarship and travelled to Leipzig to meet Heisenberg- There he worked with other key physicists of the time. He visited Bohr in Copenhagen and published a few papers on atomic physics. Today, his theoretical work on the mass of neutrinos has proven to be of extreme importance since it has been confirmed only recently.
Fermi once wrote about three types of scientists. Most of them work as hard as they can and don’t get all that far. A small number of scientists contribute to truly great discoveries that form a pillar in the progress of science. According to Fermi, this group includes the likes of Heisenberg. And then there are geniuses such as Galileo and Newton. According to Fermi, Ettore Majorana belonged in this rarest category of talent, but unfortunately lacked the common sense to publish his brilliant ideas.
The fateful journey to Palermo
On Friday March 25 1938, Majorana wrote two letters in his room in Naples. The first letter was addressed to his superior, the second to his family. He had recently become a full professor at the University of Naples where he was supposed to hold a lecture on quantum mechanics the next morning. Sadly, he never made it to the lecture. At 10.30 p.m. he boarded a ship to Palermo which was to arrive the next morning.
On Saturday, his superior Antonio Carrelli received a telegram saying: “Do not worry. Letter on the way. Majorana.” The letter soon came with the mail. In the letter Ettore excuses himself for his sudden disappearance and asks Carrelli to remember him with kindness. Mayorana left the second letter on the table in his room. In that letter he asked his family not to mourn him for more than three days, sought their forgiveness and requested that they keep him in their thoughts. Even though both letters could be interpreted as suicide notes, those who read them said they were written in a confident manner, quite unlike the majority of suicide letters. In neither letter does Ettore mention death, only disappearance.
Ettore surprisingly got off the ship in Palermo the next morning and booked a room in a hotel. He wrote another letter to Carrelli on hotel writing paper, saying he hoped Carrelli had received his previous letter and telegram. He said that he was coming back home the next day. He had decided to refuse the teaching position at Naples. Ettore ends his letter by saying he is no hero from an Ibsen play, adding that his case is different and offering to give an explanation to Carrelli upon his return. On Saturday evening his ship left Palermo for Naples. Ettore bought a ticket but never arrived. Ever since then he has been listed as a missing person.
On Wednesday, March 30 Carrelli wrote a letter to the chancellor of the University of Naples, describing the incident. He quoted the unusual letters and the telegram he had received and reconstructed Majorana’s moves up to the Saturday evening when he disappeared without trace. He mentioned notifying his family in Rome and that his brother was coming to Naples on Tuesday to organise a search. But even after a police investigation, they weren’t able to prove Ettore was still alive.
It seems that the mysterious case of the missing genius physicist is still newsworthy. In March 2011 the Italian media reported that the Majorana case was being reopened in Rome. The prosecutors had supposedly received some reliable photographs and a witness reportedly met Majorana in Buenos Aires soon after World War II. On June 7, 2011 Corriere della Sera reported that the Carabinieri had carefully studied a supposed photograph of Majorana dated 1955 and confirmed that the man in the picture greatly resembles the physicist who had gone missing in 1938. He was reportedly living in Argentina under the name of “Mister Bini”.