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The mysterious disappearance of Ettore Majorana

March 27th, 1938. A ferry boat from Palermo arrived into Naples harbour. A passenger, Ettore Majorana, was expected to be on-board: he did leave Palermo on the ferry; a sailor saw him entering his cabin while the boat was entering Naples harbour. But nobody could find him in Naples! The most accredited theory, at the time, was that he fell in the sea. But the sea gave back no body. What happened since still is a mystery today…. He would be 107 years old, so it’s not unreasonable to presume that he’s now dead….

Why, out of all the people that disappear every day, this one is special?

Ettore Majorana’s early life

Ettore Majorana was born in Catania (Sicily) on August 5th 1906, fourth of five brothers, in a wealthy family: his grand-father Salvatore had been twice Minister of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce; his uncle Angelo had been Minister of Finance; his father Fabio and, above all, his preferred uncle Quirino were physicists; uncle Giuseppe was a jurist and a Member of Parliament; an other uncle, Dante, was Rector of the Catania University. Ettore brilliantly graduated in Physics, at La Sapienza University in Rome, in 1930, but his first scientific paper was published in 1928, when he was a 22-years-old undergraduate! Just one year after his graduation, he was internationally famous: the Sovietic Embassy in Rome contacted him to head the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology; other invitations came from Yale, Cambridge and the prestigious Carnegie Foundation. But he didn’t bother answering them: he preferred to stay in Rome, going from time to time to the Physics Institute in Panisperna Street. There were all his fellow scientists of the time, like Emilio Segrè (Nobel Prize for Physics in 1959), or  Amaldi, Rasetti, D’Agostino, Pontecorvo…. In early 1933, he went to Germany on behalf of the National Research Council and met Werner Heisenberg – one of the key creators of quantum mechanics and Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932, which he considered a friend – who introduced him to his mentor, Niels Bohr (also Nobel Prize in Physics, with Heisenberg). His former teacher was the raising star of Modern Physics, Enrico Fermi, Nobel prize in Physics in 1938 but, at the time, teaching Physics at La Sapienza University in Rome and later the designer of the atomic bomb; Fermi understood Ettore’s potential (he’d later compare him to Galilei and Newton) and, failing to convince him to apply for an existing Physics Professor role in the same University, finally arranged Ettore’s appointment at the Naples University in 1937, “for his exceptional merits“. Majorana published a lot of work in these years between Germany and Italy – most of which was further and advanced development of the at-the-time state-of-the-art in Modern Physics: Antonio Masiero, director of one section of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), once said that they “(….) are reading again [Majorana’s] notes (….), which still contain obscure aspects“. He was also known for not seeking credit for his discoveries, considering his work to be trivial: he was the first to propose the idea that an unknown particle involved in the experiments of Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot (both Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935) should not only be neutral, but have a mass about the same as the proton: the neutron. Fermi told him to write an article, but Majorana didn’t bother, and the credit was given to James Chadwick, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932 for this discovery. Moreover, the solution of Majorana’s equation yields particles that are their own anti-particle, now referred to as Majorana Fermions. In April 2012, some of what Majorana predicted may have been confirmed in experiments on hybrid semiconductor-superconductor wire devices.

He soon had some health issues and decide to isolate himself from colleagues, friends and relatives: he was also somehow unsatisfied; lonely and submerged in his thoughts, he wrote to his brother Luciano that “(….) at the Institute, nobody understands anything. Only four people can understand my theories: Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Anderson.

On March 27th 1938, he just disappeared for ever….

The investigations and the theories on Majorana’s disappearance

Several theories have been proposed in order to explain his disappearance, partially or totally discrediting one another: monastery cloister, transfer to Argentina, suicide…. The only accepted fact is that, a few days earlier, Ettore went to the convent in S. Pasquale dei Portici and asked to be admitted as a monk: he was refused. It is likely that he tried somewhere else. Mussolini himself ordered enquiries, but they ended up nowhere.

The theory that Ettore could be in a cloistered convent is supported by non-negligible circumstantial evidence: when his mother asked for information to a convent abbot, she received an ambiguous reply: “Why do you look for him, Madam? The most important thing is that he is happy.” His mother contacted the Pope, Pius XII, to have confirmation of his incorporation in a monastery but she never received a reply: she stopped mourning him since then.

An inquiry has been opened in March 2011 by the Rome Attorney, after a witness declared to have met Majorana in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after World War II. Final determinations are still pending.

Regardless of where he went, the decision to disappear looks to be linked to one of his likely discoveries. Some suggest have been made that he could have imagined the development of his science up to the atomic bomb earlier than his colleagues; others suggest that some of his work on anti-matter would lead to a pure form of energy, without radiations, and could be even deadlier than the nuclear weapons, if in the wrong hands. Ettore would then decide not to be part of these developments.

We may not ever know what happened to Ettore Majorana after March 27th 1938, but we definitely know what happened to us: we lost one of the most beautiful minds ever.

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