The Physicist Who Vanished: The Strange Fate of Ettore Majorana

 

During the middle 1930s, as the Great Depression loomed in the West, the rest of the world had begun to feel the gales of an oncoming economic storm. International trade had fallen by nearly 30 percent, and tariffs on importation were raised as countries scrambled to protect what had already been shaky industrial ground. Nearly 30 million people were unemployed worldwide by 1932, planting the seeds for much wider-reaching political effects that would emerge later: Argentina’s government turned to militarization, whereas in Europe, fascism gained foothold as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, promising to restore Germany’s economic prowess, and combating unemployment with a burgeoning militarization that would soon threaten all of Europe.

Technological and scientific innovation were also areas where hope for prosperity could still be found, and with the rise of fascism in parts of Europe, dictators knew all too well the importance of scientific developments which present advantages to the State. Throughout the 1930s, the study of physics focused primarily on radioactivity and its implications, with comprehensive knowledge of alpha, beta, and gamma rays becoming apparent by the middle of the decade. By 1932, researchers Frédéric Joliot and Irène Joliot-Curie had documented what they believed to be the existence of a new and unusual particle, suspecting it may have been evidence of these mysterious gamma rays; however, the discovery had been interpreted differently by one young, and relatively unknown physicist with a background in engineering, who would later become one of the most mysterious and controversial names in science throughout the twentieth century.

An Unlikely and Unwilling Genius

Ettore Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily, and at an early age joined Enrico Fermi’s “Via Panisperna boys”, a group of young researchers credited with the first discovery of slow neutrons, encompassing an energy range of 1–10 eV. This famous discovery would lead to the development of the nuclear reactor, which later helped facilitate construction of the atomic bomb. Majorana had a penchant for mathematics, and having attended university to study engineering in 1923, shifted his focus to physics within five years, following his uncle Quirino, whose background in physics had perhaps influenced the young scientist.

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Majorana’s early papers dealt with atomic spectroscopy, but in 1932, he had taken interest in the work of Joliot and Joliot-Curie, giving consideration to the idea of a new particle bearing a neutral charge. Impressed with the idea, Enrico Fermi urged the young physicist to flesh out the idea in a scientific article, but considering many of his ideas to be either obvious, or simply boring, he neglected to do so. Within the year, the discovery of a new particle, the neutron, was awarded to James Chadwick, along with a Nobel Prize for his work.

The self-dismissive attitude Majorana espoused in regard to his 1932 discovery would dog him throughout his life, despite authoring a number of papers, some of them unpublished until long after his death, which dealt with subjects ranging from atomic spectroscopy and relativity, to the creation of what is known today as the Majorana equation, as well as its associated Majorana mass and Majorana particles. Lengthy manuscripts, as well as entire issues of scientific journals, have focused on his work and contributions to the study of quantum physics, and he worked alongside many of the great minds of his day, including Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Following a period of heath difficulties and family issues, Majorana became a professor of physics at the University of Naples, where his attitudes led to him becoming increasingly withdrawn from the world.

Sadly, despite his numerous achievements, Majorana is best known outside scientific literature for the strange circumstances involving his disappearance, and the unusual theories that would later emerge about what his ultimate fate could have been.

The Disappearance

“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 the geniuses, like Galilei and Newton. Majorana was one of these.” Thus were the words of Enrico Fermi the year that Majorana vanished under what, arguably, were suspicious circumstances.

What is known of the disappearance is that Majorana took rather decisive action when he withdrew the entire keepings of his bank account before a sudden, and perhaps unplanned trip made to Palermo, Sicily. This location is mysterious in that, being three hours from his birthplace, it seems unlikely he had gone there for purpose of meeting family members. Along with the sudden departure, Majorana left a message for Antonio Carrelli, Director at that time of the Naples Physics Institute, which suggested the possibility of grim plans Majorana had made:

Dear Carrelli,

I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remind me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too.

E. Majorana

The final line in Majorana’s message, of course, is cryptic enough to have led to a prevailing theory of suicide. However, the story would not end here; a subsequent telegram would appear that evening, indicating Majorana’s apparent intent to return to Naples. A ticket was purchased, but the trip, if it were ever made at all, appeared to have remained incomplete; Majorana never resurfaced in Naples, nor was he ever seen again.

In addition to the notion that Majorana had committed suicide, other theories as to his fate and reasons for disappearance have emerged over the years. While Amaldi and others at the Institute in Naples kept by the suicide explanation, others have suggested the physicist became disenchanted with his work, perhaps leading him away from the scientific establishment, leading to bizarre (and unlikely) notions that Majorana had joined a monastery, or simply left and became a beggar in a far-off location where his identity remained unknown.

Majorana was, however, a scientist, mathematician, and engineer of an astute and meticulous nature. It remains a fact that, prior to his disappearance, his bank account had been emptied; this alone has led many who have studied the case to discount Majorana’s intention to claim his own life. A more probable theory involved the notion that Majorana, having expressed what some viewed as antisemitic sentiments over the years, could have collaborated with the Nazis, though little evidence exists that would imply this scenario carried any real weight.

Disappearance, or Departure?

Conspiracy theories about the death or disappearance would persist for decades, and the theories about Majorana’s disappearance, as well as investigations that would explore their merit, would culminate in two books on the subject, Leonardo Sciascia’s 1975 book La Scomparsa di Majorana (The Moro Affair and The Mystery of Majorana), and Erasmo Recami’s Il caso Majorana: Lettere, testimonianze, documenti (The Majorana case: Letters, Testimonies, and Documents) in 2000. Needless to say, Recami’s book differed strongly with Sciascia’s ideas, with Recami taking a controversial, though thoroughly-researched possibility: that Majorana had made his way to Argentina, where he worked as an engineer until his death.

Despite the numerous theories that remained until well into the 2000s, it might have appeared that the trail of clues involving Majorana’s disappearance had simply run cold. However, in 2008, a strange series of events led to what many would view as a breakthrough in the case, when a caller phoned in to an Italian television program called Chi l’ha visto (Who saw him), telling an unusual story.

The caller claimed that in 1955, while in Caracas, Venezuela he had talked with a friend who claimed he had met Majorana while living in Argentina. The caller was introduced to this man, now living in Caracas, who went by the name “Bini”, though it was confirmed by the friend that Bini was, in fact, the missing physicist.

Tommaso Dorigo, an experimental physicist at CERN and blogger at Science 2.0, translated the caller’s testimony in a blog post in June, 2011, which reads as follows:

I left to Venezuela because of disagreements with my father in April 1955. Once in Caracas, I went to Valencia with Ciro, a Sicilian friend, who presented me to a Mr. Bini. I connected Bini to Majorana thanks to Carlo, an Argentinian. He said “Do you realize who that guy is ? He’s a scientist. He’s got a brain you can’t imagine. He is mr. Majorana”. They had met in Argentina. He was of average height, with white hair, few and wavy. The white hair of a man who was once black-haired. One could see it from the fact that he wore his watch over his shirt, so to wash his hands he opened his sleeves and black hair could be seen. He was shy, often silent, and if you invited him to a night club he wouldn’t come. He might have been 50-55 years old. He had a roman accent but one could see he was not. One could also see he was well-learned. He looked like a prince. I sometimes told him “What the hell do you live for ? You are always sad”. He said he worked, we dined together, then he would disappear for 10-15 days. He had a yellow Studebacker. He only paid for the gas, otherwise he looked always penniless. Sometimes I used to tell him “You care so much for this car and have all these papers”. These were sheets with numbers and commas, bars. He never wanted to be photographed, and since I once had to lend him 150 bolivars, I sort of blackmailed him, I asked him to get a picture of him to send it to my family. He was shorter than I was. When I found the picture I decided to speak, otherwise it was useless for me to say I had known Majorana.”

The story, if true, is certainly interesting, and would seem to match the theory offered previously regarding Erasmo Recami’s research into whether Majorana left for Argentia to work as an engineer. But perhaps most interesting of all had been the caller’s claim that a photograph had been obtained of the man he thought had been Majorana. In fact, this information was considered compelling enough that the Rome Attorney’s office began its own inquiry into the case, which resolved in an analysis of the photograph in question by the Carabinieri (Italy’s military police), which alleged that there were ten specific points which drew similarities between the subject in the photo, purportedly taken in 1955 in Argentina, and earlier photos of Ettore Majorana.majorana-comparison-570x266

Finally, in February of 2015, an official statement was issued by the Rome Attorney’s Office, stating that Majorana had indeed lived well after his disappearance, having retreated to South America where he lived until his death. “Ettore Majorana, the brilliant physicist… that some experts rank among Newton and Einstein [and thought to have] died mysteriously in 1938, was alive in the period 1955-1959, and was voluntarily living in the Venezuelan city of Valencia,” reported the Italian Corriere della Sera. 

The question, however, remained as to why, specifically, the brilliant physicist would leave his life, work, and family behind to live in another part of the world, working in relative obscurity. Furthermore, what kind of engineering work, precisely, had one of the world’s most brilliant physicists undertaken in the years during and after the Second World War, while living in Argentina? While a number of speculative lines might be drawn, some family members, as well as researchers involved, felt that Majorana had gone into hiding, fearing the ethical and logistical implications on his work that helped facilitate the creation of atomic weaponry.

It is worth noting that the Corriere article published in February further noted the differences of opinion that still remain, despite the official declarations by Rome’s Attorney Office:

The revelations about the disappearance of Majorana, however, are challenged by a leading expert on the life and works of the late scholar, scientist Antonino Zichichi, director of the Cultural Center Ettore Majorana Erice (Trapani). Who comments: “But imagine if Ettore Majorana was seen in Venezuela in 1955. It can not be true at all. It ‘a false story, without foundation, even if it comes from the prosecutor of Rome. Majorana was a genius, because he had to escape there? “. He adds: “Majorana ended up in a convent, had a spiritual crisis. It’s enough. ” He tells a story: “I met the bishop of Trapani in the sixties, Monsignor Ricceri, was regularly in the events of the Centre for Scientific Culture and once told me that was the confessor of Majorana and had spiritual crisis. So he went to a monastery and just, other than Venezuela.”

Does the photograph from 1955 indeed show the face of one of the most intriguing missing persons cases of the last century? Or had a “spiritual crisis”, as described above (and perhaps very similar to the kinds of self-imposed ethical shortcomings which might have caused him to leave for South America) actually been the true cause for Majorana’s disappearance?

Perhaps the verdict will indeed remain open to some, although the photograph from 1955 had certainly been convincing enough to the analysts at Carabinieri’s photo labs. Enough so, in fact, that the Rome Attorney’s Office responded by closing the case, having no longer had cause for belief there had been any foul play at hand, and that Majorana had indeed left the country of his own free will.

Despite this “resolution” to the case, a number of questions remain about what motivations Majorana may have had for leaving Europe, and choosing to live in a part of the world which, incidentally, became notorious as a Nazi hideout after the war.

In truth, it seems doubtful that any explanation will ever emerge that fully accounts for the Majorana’s departure, as well as the questions regarding what occurred during the remainder of his years in hiding.