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Number 142 in this series. Link to all items here.
Ettore Majorana (1906 – 1938?)
Great physicists of the 20th century acquired the reputation of being, if not bloated with ego, then aggressive, and if not aggressive, then at least brash in trumpeting their accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with that, either. Without Planck, Heisenberg, Bohr, etc. etc. I would not now have a healthy paranoia about the nano-black hole resting in space above my computer, just biding its time and waiting for me to fall asleep.
There is, however, an enigmatic exception to the rule of Genius-as-Swelled-Head. His name was Ettore (Hector) Majorana, one of the great scientific minds in Italian history. If that sounds like hyperbole, his colleague and friend, Enrico Fermi, said this of him:
There are many categories of scientists, people of second and third rank, who do their best, but do not go very far. There are also people of first class, who make great discoveries, which are of capital importance for the development of science. But then there are the geniuses, like Galileo and Newton. Well, Ettore was one of these. Majorana had greater gifts than anyone else in the world; unfortunately he lacked one quality that other men generally have: plain common sense.Later, when Fermi was on the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer recalled that on one occasion, when they were about to tackle a particularly thorny problem, Fermi blurted out "If only Ettore were here!"*1
Ettore Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily. He first studied engineering, then physics. His doctorate in physics from the La Sapienza University of Rome came in 1929 on the basis of his thesis, The Mechanics of Radioactive Nuclei. He defended the thesis to Prof. Fermi, himself, who gave it the highest possible mark. Ettore had a cheering section in the front row at the thesis defence: they were all, including Ettore, members of Fermi's famous "Boys from via Pansperna," so called from the name of the street where Fermi's institute was located. They were all rambunctious young physicists eager to unravel the atom, and the decade of the 1930s was looming large and crucial. Majorana had joined the group as an undergraduate a few years earlier; they say he showed up to meet Fermi for the first time, looked at some of Fermi's notes and without taking notes, himself, went home and came back the next day with his own solutions scribbled down. He gave them to Fermi and said, "Professor, I think you're on the right track."
Majorana's first papers dealt with atomic spectroscopy. He began promising work on neutrino masses and is remembered for what is now known as the "Majorana equation." He also went abroad and worked with Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. So far, standard stuff of genius with the exception that Ettore was strangely lackadaisical about publishing his work or publicizing himself. He either didn't publish or was so slow to do so that his work languished, and he did not get the credit that colleagues knew he deserved. He is said to have considered his work trivial. He was also given to melancholy.
He became a full professor of theoretical physics at the University of Naples in 1937 without the need for an examination just on the basis of his reputation, and here is where the mystery starts. Perhaps his melancholy or the lack of "common sense" that Fermi mentioned had something to do with the fact that shortly after taking up his post at Naples, Ettore Majorana simply disappeared. Early in 1938, he left a note of apology for the department head, apologizing for the inconvenience, withdrew his savings from the bank and was gone. A short time later, however, he sent another note, saying that he was returning; indeed, there is a record of him buying a ticket from Palermo to Naples so maybe he was planning to come back. No one knows because he never disembarked at Naples.
His disappearance, while not spectacular world news in the ominous year of 1938, did attract at least some small feature space in other parts of the world; witness this brief filler from the distant Northern Gazette in Alberta, Canada.
The disappearance and ultimate fate of Majorana drew (and continues to draw) speculation, some of which could be from a film called Raiders of the Lost Relativistic Wave Equation:
—suicide; plausible but not likely according to those who knew him best. The note he left was not suicidal, and he took money from the bank before leaving;
—escape to Argentina, where he may have earned his living as an engineer;
—flight to a monastery; he was a devout Catholic and at least some sources say he felt guilty at helping to develop science that could lead to atomic weapons;
—he was murdered in order to stop him from working on such science;
—he simply wandered off into a homeless life, getting by from day to day. Indeed, one story says he was spotted in a town square in Sicily helping children with their homework!
I have no idea, which puts me in pretty good company. I would be saddened by his suicide, horrified at murder, indifferent to escape to Argentina, and overjoyed at the kids/homework story (simply too good to be true!). Maybe the monastery one appeals to me most. I can see it...Ettore is sitting alone and at peace on a bench in a monastery garden high in the Gabardine Mounts, contemplating the sunset, when he is called back to this world by the racket of shuffling sandals approaching and a whispered "Pssssst! Brother!...There's a problem in the kitchen. We have 7.5 liters of porridge and 11 monks..."
"I said, we each get zero point six eight..."
"Yes, but Fra Fatty and Fra Lardo are entitled to one-fifth more than the others."
"Wait, I can do this. I can do this...we have takeaways and goes-intos, right?"
"Well, brother, not quite. Here, look. We'll let this little x equal the amount of porridge the nine of us get and x + 1/5x equal...[then, to himself]...sigh...well, the sun will be back tomorrow."
Perhaps Enrico Fermi has the last word on this. After Majorana had been missing for a while, Fermi is reported to have said, "Ettore was too intelligent. If he has decided to disappear, no one will be able to find him."*2
There have been a number books and articles about Majorana that discuss the various possible scenarios. One recent book is by Erasmo Recami: Il caso Majorana: Lettere, testimonianze, documenti (Di Renzo Editore, Rome, 2000.)
*1 & 2- cited in Ettore Majorana: Genius and Mystery by Antonio Zuchichi, published by the Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture (Erice, Sicily), on-line here. ^back up
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