Frontiers 2013 People and Ideas

The Majorana mystery

Written by Mary Leonard

March 25 is the 75th anniversary of one of the most baffling mysteries in science – the disappearance of the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana, at the age of 31.

The story is one which has intrigued and mystified quantum scientists for 75 years. In fact it is almost as if Majorana personified a great part of his own work, which until last year, had itself also remained elusive.

But while Dutch scientists may finally have succeeded in detecting the Majorana fermion, a particle which is both itself and its own anti-particle, offering greater understanding of quantum processes, we are still no closer to discovering what actually became of the young and brilliant physicist, who has been compared to Galileo and Newton, and who disappeared without a trace on March 25 1938.

Many theories have been postulated and discounted, from suicide or homicide to spiritual calling. But whatever the scenario, if we delve into Majorana’s story we discover the tragic loss to the scientific community of a brilliant mind.

Physics with Fermi

Born on August 5 1906 in Catania, Sicily, the young Ettore was described as a very bright, but very shy, child. In fact there is some speculation that he might even have been autistic to some degree.  For a time it looked as though he would follow his father into engineering, but on the persuasion of fellow student Emilio Segrè, Majorana decided to enter the world of physics and was admitted to the Theoretical Physics Program at the University of Rome, at the beginning of 1928, to study under Enrico Fermi.

Many of his first papers dealt with atomic spectroscopy and he became one of the ‘Via Panisperna Boys’, who discovered atomic fusion in 1934.  The name was taken from the street address of the laboratory where they worked.

It didn’t take Fermi long to realise he had a genius on his hands, although he was at times frustrated by Majorana’s indifference when it came to claiming credit for his own work, particularly on the prediction of the existence of the neutron.  The credit for its discovery later went to Sir James Chadwick, who received the Nobel Prize for it. Had it not been for Fermi taking it upon himself to write up and submit Majorana’s work we might never have known about many of his other discoveries. However, today almost as much has been written about the mystery of his disappearance as of his work.

With Heisenberg and Bohr

In the years leading up to it, we know that Majorana had travelled to Leipzig in January 1933 to work with Werner Heisenberg.  He also travelled to Copenhagen to work with Niels Bohr, returning to Rome in the autumn of the same year, suffering reportedly from gastritis brought on by nervous exhaustion.  Not much is known of his career for the next few years except that he developed a keen interest in philosophy, economics and politics.  Then in January 1938 he took up a position in Naples teaching quantum mechanics, but the level of the lectures was said to be so high that very few understood them.  During this period he had his salary deposited into a bank in Naples, but did not touch any of it until March 23 when he took it all out and boarded the night boat to Palermo.

We know he reached Palermo because it was from there he sent a note to the Director of the Naples Physics Institute, Antonio Carelli, saying he had to make an unavoidable decision and asking for Carelli’s forgiveness. He later sent a telegraph message cancelling the first note.

It was discovered that Majorana had travelled back to Naples on the night of March 25 1938 and had shared a compartment with Professor Michele Strazzeri of the University of Palermo.

Nothing is known of him after this time although a reward of 30,000 lire was offered by the family.

Like Galilei and Newton

When Fermi heard of Majorana’s disappearance he is reported to have said to his wife: “Ettore was too intelligent.  If he has decided to disappear, no one will be able to find him.” So concerned was he for the young scientist that he enlisted the help of Mussolini himself in the search for Majorana saying: “There are several categories of scientists in the world; those of second or third rank do their best but never get very far. Then there is the first rank, those who make important discoveries, fundamental to scientific progress. But then there are geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Majorana was one of these.”

According to Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, Majorana also left a note at the hotel in Palermo for his family asking them not to wear black and to forgive him if they could.

Taken with the previous notes to Carelli, suicide would seem the most likely option; but Sciascia rules this out on the grounds that Majorana was a devout Catholic.  Majorana’s family and his priest Monsignor Francesco Riccieri also rule out suicide, favouring the option of spiritual retreat. Sciascia believes that Majorana wanted to disappear because he foresaw that nuclear forces would lead to nuclear explosives and he wanted no part of it.

The questions continue

As recently as 2011 the Attorney General’s Office in Rome announced an enquiry into a photograph purportedly taken of Majorana in either Buenos Aires or Caracas in 1955 and which was shown to have 10 points of similarity to the young Majorana and also points of similarity to his father.

A much earlier report had a ‘Majorana’ checking in to a hotel in Buenos Aires; but when detectives arrived at the scene they were to discover the registration page had been torn from the hotel register.

Whatever the discovery of the Majorana particle holds for quantum physics, whether this may be the potential development of the world’s first quantum computer or a greater understanding of cosmology and dark matter, it seems clear that the puzzle of what really became of Majorana himself after the night of March 25 1938 will remain an equation without a definitive answer.

About the author

Mary Leonard

Mary Leonard began her journalistic career on The Orcadian. Since then she has lived and worked in different parts of the world. She now lives in Edinburgh where she works as a psychotherapist and counsellor and continues to enjoy writing.