Ettore Majorana: is the mystery solved?

A breaking piece of news appeared today on one Italian national newspaper: there is proof of Ettore Majorana being in Venezuela in the 1950s.

Maybe you have never heard of him, but Majorana was a gifted Italian physicist who had produced great theoretical results in particle physics and quantum mechanics. The discovery of neutrinos was bestowed on him and he speculated on the existence of Majorana fermions (evidence found in 2012), just to give you a hint of his merits. He studied Physics in Rome together with Segrè (Nobel prize in Physics in 1959) and Enrico Volterra.

He showed to be a bright science scholar already at the age of 5. During his university studies, he met Enrico Fermi, who showed him some of his current particle physics research, including a novel table summing up some particle potentials (the Fermi potential) he calculated. The day afterwards, Majorana went back to Fermi, asking him to show that table again, since the previous day he could only spot it for few seconds. He took a piece of paper from his pocket, with the same numbers on it: in the previous 24 hours he had calculated the same numbers and wanted to check that Fermi's table was correct.

He graduated at 23, under supervision of Fermi (of course!). Apparently he was no piece of cake: he was so surly and stiff that his colleagues named him "the great inquisitor". At some point he started working in isolation in his flat, warding off visitors and letters by writing on the envelope "Rejected for death of the receiver". After refusing professorship positions from Cambridge and Yale, he became full professor at University of Naples. In 1938 he suddenly disappeared after withdrawing a significant amount of money and sending some mysterious notes to his family and his closest friends. The money withdrawal is a clue fighting against the suicide hypothesis, together with some testimonies of his presence in Naples after the day of the disappearance.

Some say he had a mystical crisis and retired in a monastery for the rest of his life. The famous Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia wrote a book (*) about his disappearance. The most popular theory is that he was scared from his scientific discoveries and their possible social consequences. Let's not forget he lived during Mussolini's time and the dictator was very attentive towards discoveries that could help his war. The latest investigation of Rome's district place him in Venezuela during the 1950s. He took the name of Bini and lived there as an Italian immigrant. The proofs are a picture of Mr. Bini that has perfect correspondence with Majorana's facial traits, a testimony by another Italian immigrant who met him and a postcard from Quirino Majorana, Ettore's uncle and brilliant physicist himself, addressed to a certain W. G. Conklin and found in Bini's car. Unfortunately there are no other traces of Majorana after 1959 and a big part of the mystery remains. Why has he left? Why not coming back after the II World War?

If this story made you curious, you can read more in the book referenced below.

(*) I could not find an English edition, but if you can read Italian you can search for Sciascia's book. An English language biography can be found here.

Paola Elefante

Digital Scaling Project Manager at Plan International. Proud mother & wife. Shameless nerd&geek. Feminist. Undercover gourmet.

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