Who Is Ettore Majorana?

Imagine it’s the early 1930’s. You are a gifted physicist, and your world has recently been turned upside down. Physics is no longer the study of things we can see, but explorations of worlds invisible to our sight – world’s that behave in the most peculiar of ways. The nucleus of the atom, the particles that make up light, and perhaps even smaller building blocks are now your playground. These rebel particles play a totally different game than the one your predecessors spent centuries trying to understand. You are at the forefront of a revolution.

You are working with the brightest minds of your generation, you have all the funding you need, and the network of physicists world wide are awaiting your most recent results. When suddenly, you realize something. Atoms, which physicists have found are made up of massive, positively charged particles called protons and much lighter, negatively charged particles called electrons, must also posses a neutral particle. Something a just little less more massive than a proton but not nearly as light as an electron. [Ed note: As pointed out by one of our dear readers, I mixed up the masses of the proton and the neutron here. The neutron is slightly heavier.] You’ve just discovered the neutron. It will unlock a thousand doors in physics and change our perception of the world. The person credited with it’s discovery will no doubt live on in physics history forever.

Do you:

a. Run and tell your supervisor right away so you can begin preparing a paper for publication.

b. Get drunk and run into the street screaming about your neutral particle – then go tell your supervisor right away so you can begin preparing a paper for publication.

c. Do nothing.

d. Haha, yeah right, like anyone would do nothing if they made one of the greatest discoveries in physics history. (c) is pretty much just a joke.

Well, actually, it is believed that Ettore Majorana, a Sicilian born physicist working with the likes of Enrico Fermi, did in fact construct a pretty solid argument for the existence of the neutron, then sat on it and waited until someone else published about it.

But why? Why sit on such a discovery and let someone else get the credit? That question nearly drove Enrico Fermi bonkers. Fermi was so obsessed with publishing every tiny result he came up with, let alone any major result, that his frustration with Majorana haunted their relationship for years to come. Why wouldn’t someone want credit for their discovery? What kind of a person, especially one so incredibly gifted at physics, not choose to stake their claim?

The answer is, that no one really knows. No one really understood Ettore Majorana while he was alive, and now it is too late to try and ask him. Ettore Majorana disappeared from Italy in 1939, and was never heard from again.

Majorana did suffer from depression; he once locked himself in his room for four years and hardly spoke to anyone. Yet, once he left the hermit lifestyle, he started teaching at the University of Naples and seemed to be coming around and enjoying his life. He may have battled suicidal thoughts; but he also took out a few months salary right before his disappearance. He left a letter for his boss in which he asked forgiveness and said he would not be at work; yet many argue whether this was the equivalent of a suicide note. He was an incredible physicist who could have marched the field forward; yet he had already displayed a total disregard for fame or the need to publish results which he believed someone else would publish eventually. Majorana was an enigma, a two-face, a mystery.

He was also brilliant. Part of Majorana’s emotional suffering may have come from the fact that he was a child prodigy, gifted at mathematics. Like many smart children, Majorana couldn’t fit in with his peers and leaned on a sense of superiority to deal with it. This apparently carried into his adulthood, and he would become enraged or severely irritated at anyone who couldn’t keep up with him in physics and mathematics (which was just about everyone). In addition, Majorana grew up in a dictator household where his mother ruled with an iron fist that left a deep imprint on young Ettore. While most of his siblings made it out alive and fairly stable, Majorana was troubled by inner demons.

Still, he was a natural scientist and he earned an undergraduate degree in engineering and a PhD in physics from the University of Rome La Sapienza. There Ettore joined Enrico Fermi and a group of young men destined for quantum mechanical greatness. They were known as the Via Paspernera Boys, named after the street on which their laboratory was located.

Together with quantum mechanics, the physics world was focused on understanding the nucleus of the atom: it’s make up, structure and behavior. How is an atom built? What particles or building blocks make it up? How can we determine more about it? How is it held together? How does it interact with magnetic or electric fields? And how can we break it apart?

Ettore dabbled in all of this during his undergraduate and doctoral work at the University of Rome. His mind seemed to allow him to join the ranks of the most established physicists of the time. His thoughts were unrestrained by classical physics or a notion of what must or must not be correct, and this freed him up to discover many of the unexpected twists and turns that atomic theory presented.

Ettore worked closely with the Boys for many years, and collectively the group made huge progress on the world’s understanding of the neutron. Majorana producing a fair amount of published work that was helpful – but he was still suspected of sitting on great ideas rather than publishing them. Who knows what great discoveries we might credit to Ettore Majorana had he only been motivated to publish. And while this drove Fermi crazy, he would later praise Majorana’s genius, putting him in league with Galileo and Newton. He also humbled himself enough to realize that while he, Fermi, had great technical skill and tremendous mathematical ability, he lacked the creativity that Majorana possessed. Perhaps this was why he was so obsessed with getting credit for his work. Majorana seemed to know that he would always produce great physics, while Fermi did not.

After a few years with the Boys, iced with more than a little personal conflict between them, Ettore traveled to Germany where he worked with legendary physicist Werner Heisenberg. The two became good friends and complimentary colleagues, and they worked on a model of the atomic nucleus, among other things. Heisenberg and Majorana became friends, and Majorana even worked with Heisenberg’s long time mentor Niels Bohr. Not long after, Majorana published what would come to be seen as his great opus – his paper on the neutrino. It is only in the last decade that experiments to directly test Majorana’s theories have been constructed. Frustrated though he was at the physics community following a theory laid out by Dirac and not his own, Majorana’s life was, for the most part, looking up.

So why did Majorana disappear? After leaving Heisenberg’s company and having mostly cut himself off from the Via Boys, Majorana entered a major slump. Following a great illness, he spent four years mostly cut off from the world, living alone, growing out a shaggy beard, reducing his bathing schedule, and at the same time writing volumes of papers on topics ranging from geophysics to relativity. Those papers were never published by Majorana, but have been revived by some of his old colleagues.

Four years with very little human interaction would break some people, but it almost seems to have relaxed Majorana. He decided, rather suddenly, to reenter public life, even though the physics community had mostly written him off. He entered a physics “contest” that was established in order to award the winners with professorships at Italian universities. But the outcomes were always known before hand. It was never a surprise which “competitor” went to which school. When Majorana joined the competition, it threw the pre-planned schedule totally off, but for appearances sake the organizers couldn’t deny him entry. And they knew he’d flatten everyone else there (including an old friend of his). So, before the competition, they offered him a position at Naples.

Majorana was a new man. While his lectures still went over the heads of many of his students, he was far more patient and understanding than he had been with the Boys. He was still socially awkward, but his students reported that he was pleasant and helpful. His disappearance was a surprise.

On the last day he was seen alive, Majorana boarded a boat from Naples to Palermo. He supposedly took the return trip, but if he did, he didn’t go home when he landed.

The theories as to what happened to Majorana cover a wide range. Most think he killed himself; but then, why did he withdraw so much money before he left? Enigmatic notes to his superior as the university suggest that he was not planning to return, but did not amount to suicide notes. Did he simply want to leave the world behind? But why? Some speculate that he got a glimpse of what a nuclear bomb could be and left before he could bring the theory into the light. Others believe he was kidnapped or killed by the mob, some that he fled to Argentina (where alleged sightings have been reported), others that he entered a monastery, and some that he became a beggar. No one will ever really know.

What I find most tragic about this whole story is that we may never know what amazing developments Majorana might have brought to physics had he applied himself for directly, felt the need to publish, and stuck around a little longer. Who knows that impact he may have had on the field; what mysteries he might have uncovered that we still have yet to dig up.

For a wonderful telling of the entire Majorana story, I recommend the recently published A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Dissapearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age, by Joao Magueijo. Like at true scientist, Magueijo seems unsatisfied to hear from others what they believed happened to Majorana, so he goes in search of the truth himself. His path through Italy also weaves through Majorana’s physics (mostly the study of the neutrino, which is up for experimentation right now!) and his life. Magueijo makes the story sound more like a gossip column than a history. Who says physicists can’t stir up human emotion? These guys are almost ready for a reality TV show. I love Magueijo’s style of writing and I love this story.

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