SCIENCE FOCUS

Science Focus: Italy closes case on physician's mysterious disappearance

Prosecutor rules that physicist who vanished in 1938 was spotted in Venezuela two decades later

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 February, 2015, 8:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 February, 2015, 8:09am

Early this month, the judiciary in Italy officially closed the file on Ettore Majorana, whose sudden disappearance in 1938 marked one of the great mysteries in 20th century physics.

On February 4, Rome prosecutor Pierfilippo Laviani ruled that Majorana was still alive between 1955 and 1959 and was living in Valencia, Venezuela, under the assumed surname of Bini. Laviani declared the case closed, having found no criminal evidence in his disappearance.

Ettore Majorana was one of the greatest but least known 20th century physicists. Today his work is often cited alongside that of his friend, Enrico Fermi, who won the Nobel Prize for physics.

Fermi, one of the creators of modern physics and the atom bomb, said of his friend: "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 did belong to the last category."

No one really knew what happened to Majorana in 1938 after he turned reclusive and then disappeared. Theories ranged from suicide to defection to the Soviet Union.

But a clue surfaced some seven years ago thanks to a popular Italian television show.

Who has seen him? follows a missing-persons format common in several countries. In 2008, Roberto Fasani called the show and claimed to have key information about Majorana.

He said he had left Italy in 1955 for Caracas, Venezuela, and then proceeded to Valencia, were he met a Sicilian friend who introduced to him a Mr Bini. That white-haired gentleman looked like an aristocrat, Fasani said. But he was shy, living modestly and had a melancholy air.

Someone told Fasani the man's real name was Majorana. The camera-shy mystery man allowed himself to be photographed once. Fasani thought he had lost the photo but later retrieved it, he said, and that was why he was calling the TV show. Italian police reopened the case shortly afterwards.

Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily, in 1906 into a middle-class family. As a child he was mathematically gifted, and when young he had joined Fermi's team. He earned a degree in physics at the University La Sapienza of Rome in 1929, and in 1932 he published a paper on atomic spectroscopy concerning the behaviour of aligned atoms in magnetic fields. This problem led to an important sub-branch of atomic physics: radio-frequency spectroscopy.

At Fermi's urging, Majorana left Italy early in 1933 with a grant from the National Research Council. In Leipzig, Germany, he met and worked with Werner Heisenberg, and during that same year Majorana published a study on a relativistic theory of particles with arbitrary intrinsic momentum.

With this work, he developed a theoretical basis for the mass spectrum of elementary particles.

Like most of Majorana's papers written in Italian, it languished in relative obscurity for several decades. But today the Majorana Equation and the Majorana Fermions are named after him. The equation is consistent with quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.

This small output was enough to establish him as a giant of 20th century physics.

By the end of 1933 Majorana was back in Rome and in poor health, apparently suffering from nervous exhaustion. He grew reclusive and severed all dealings with his family. He loved reading Shakespeare in English. For four years he scarcely left his home.

On March 25, 1938 he left a note to Antonio Carrelli, Director of the Naples Physics Institute, asking to be remembered to his colleagues and saying that he had made an unavoidable decision and apologising for the inconvenience that his disappearance would cause.

This was followed by a telegram cancelling his earlier plans. He apparently bought a boat ticket from Palermo to Naples and was never seen again by his family and friends.

Angelo Paratico is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur