Majorana’s Mysterious Disappearance October 11, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
***Dedicated to Cristiano and Mau***
Ettore Majorana (obit ?), a Sicilian who mysteriously disappeared in 1938, was an almost-genius in the field of theoretical physics: many of his ideas proved so insightful that they are still being explored today. The reminiscences of those who worked with Majorana show that he was not only a remarkable scientist but also a remarkable man. He was extremely perhaps even ‘clinically’ retiring – not something we normally associate with Sicillians. And yet he had many friends and he clearly aroused love in those who came to know him. Descriptions and memories evoke an anxious individual, who risked, at times, nervous exhaustion. Yet here too was a man who liked to ‘warm his hands before the fire of life’: EM would often, after giving his lessons, stroll for hours through the most chaotic quarters of Naples, the liveliest city in Europe. And this brings us back to the question of his disappearance…
The evidence comes down to us in four communications sent by Ettore Majorana before he vanished: one to his family and three to his friend and colleague Antonio Carrelli. Let’s deal with AC first and take the communications in the order that Carrelli received them.
26 March 1938 AC received from Palermo (Sicily) a telegram from Majorana, then aged 31, telling him ‘Don’t be alarmed, a letter follows, Majorana’ (non allarmarti, segue lettera. Majorana): Majorana had gone to his home island the day before, 25 March. The letter, dated 25 March but written in Naples, read, when it arrived:
I have made a decision that was by now inevitable. It doesn’t contain even a single speck of selfishness, but I do realise that my sudden disappearance may cause some inconvenience to you and my students. For this also I would ask you to forgive me, above all for having betrayed your trust, not to mention the sincere friendship and sympathy you have so kindly offered me over the last few months. I would ask you also to remember me to all those I’ve come to know and appreciate at your institute, in particular Sciuti, of all I shall preserve the dearest memories at least until eleven o’clock this evening, and possibly beyond.
Ho preso una decisione che ormai era inevitabile. Non vi è in essa un solo granello di egoismo, ma mi rendo conto delle noie che la mia improvvisa scomparsa potrà procurare a te e agli studenti. Anche per questo ti prego di perdonarmi, ma soprattutto per aver deluso tutta la fiducia, la sincera amicizia e la simpatia che mi hai dimostrato in questi mesi. Ti prego anche di ricordarmi a coloro che ho imparato a conoscere e ad apprezzare nel tuo Istituto, particolarmente a Sciuti, dei quali conserverò un caro ricordo almeno fino alle undici di questa sera, e possibilmente anche dopo
Read quickly (and perhaps read slowly) this seems to mean that EM had decided to commit suicide, that he had written a letter, but that he had then changed his mind, sending a telegram afterwards. Then if this wasn’t confusing enough after the telegram EM wrote a letter to Carrelli from Palermo (Sicily), 26 March.
I hope that my letter and telegram have reached you together. The sea has rejected me and tomorrow I return to the Hotel Bologna [EM’s home in Naples], perhaps travelling with this same letter. I have, however, decided to give up teaching. Don’t take me for an Ibsenian heroine, because the case is altogether different. I’m at your disposal for other details.
Spero che ti siano arrivati insieme il telegramma e la lettera. Il mare mi ha rifiutato e ritornerò domani all’albergo Bologna, viaggiando forse con questo stesso foglio. Ho però intenzione di rinunziare all’insegnamento. Non mi prendere per una ragazza ibseniana perché il caso è differente. Sono a tua disposizione per ulteriori dettagli.
The drama subsides. EM had planned to throw himself into the sea on the boat from Naples to Palermo, but the sea ‘refused him’. In Palermo he wrote to explain himself. Really there is nothing to clear up here, only… only… this was the last communication from Ettore Majorana. He, to the best of our knowledge, never returned to Naples. And he was never again seen by his family or friends.
As attempts were made to find him his brother discovered this letter on EM’s table in the Hotel Bologna in Naples. It was for this family:
I have only one desire: that you don’t wear black. If you want to follow custom, then bear some sign of mourning but not for more than three days. After that remember me, if you can, in your hearts and forgive me.
Ho un solo desiderio: che non vi vestiate di nero. Se volete inchinarvi all’uso, portate pure, ma per non più di tre giorni, qualche segno di lutto. Dopo ricordatemi, se potete, nei vostri cuori e perdonatemi
What follows is a mystery. But a real mystery. For Ettore Majorana was about to become the Elvis Presley of the physics world (Boese). In the next years he would be seen in Naples, in Sicily (where he became a kind of scientific wandering Jew who helped kids with their maths homework), in Germany, in Venezuela, in various Italian monasteries and in Argentina! Oh, and the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who was sometimes victim to the conspiracy mentality, believed that EM had got tangled up the race to build the atom bomb and was consequently killed or kidnapped. The problem was that in 1938 there was no race to build the atom bomb…
As with Elvis the very multiplicity of eye-witness accounts in different places is our first clue that we are dealing with some form of wishful thinking here. But it has to be said that other hypotheses don’t work much better. The natural solution is surely that EM committed suicide. Despite the later denials of his family and friends these letters must mean that he attempted to do away with himself or that at least he wanted people to believe that he had. Then presumably after the second letter to AC he changed his mind once more and chose oblivion. The natural place to end it all would be on the boat going from Palermo back to Naples (this had been his plan the first time as the reference to the sea suggests) and there is some shaky evidence that AC got on that boat. But bodies that fall into the sea between Palermo and Naples are washed up on one of the surrounding shores… Likewise if he had killed himself on Sicily or in Naples in the next days the body would presumably have been found.
So what happened? It would be nice to think of EM with a voluptuous Argentinean wife out in the Pampas, six or seven children running around his rocking chair. Perhaps, to let the fantasy run its course, Ettore is reading this post now, aged 106, and muttering something in caustic Sicilian. But the easiest solution has to be suicide. Of course, the body should have washed up, but nature is full of freaks. Or perhaps EM, who was, after all one of the most intelligent men on the planet, found a way to kill himself and dispose of the body simultaneously: weighted clothes maybe? The evidence normally brought up against this is that Majorana had taken all his money out of the bank a week before. But for all we know he took the money out to give it to someone or some cause? He was a generous man and what would have happened to the money had his body disappeared?
But if the words above mark this author’s cold-hearted explanation he still bows before the lyrical, beautiful theory of Oleg Zaslavskii, which gives EM the most splendid immortality. OZ points out certain similarities between EM’s disappearance and the theory of Schrödinger’s cat, which EM certainly knew. For those who have not had a scientific education (e.g. me): a cat is in a closed box with some radioactive material, a Geiger counter and a container with poisonous gas. There is a fifty percent chance that over an hour the atoms will decay and this means that the Geiger counter will register said decay and let the poison out killing the cat. The cat has a fifty-fifty chance of survival. But according to quantum physics before we lift the lid to see the outcome the cat is both alive and dead. The following is Alex Boese’s summary of OZ’s argument.
Zaslavkii noted that the circumstances of Majorana’s disappareance left investigators only two possibilities. Either Majorana committed suicide by jumping overboard, or he disembarked in Naples and went into hiding. Put another way, these choices eerily match the two possible states of a light photon. That is, Majorana either fell into the waves, or he walked off the boat in a straight line. Such a similarity might simply be coincidence, but what struck Zaslavkii as more peculiar were Majorana’s last communications. First Majorana sent a letter saying he had decided to disappear. He followed this with a telegram announcing a change of mind and finally he sent a letter expressing the hope that Carrelli had learned of the two possibilities at the same time. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to hope that the telegram renouncing his intention to disappear had arrived first? Why would Majorana want Carrelli to learn of the two possibilities together? The answer, Zaslavskii suggested, was that Majorana deliberately arranged events so that the director would have to consider two contradictory alternatives simultaneously. By doing so, Majorana placed himself in a state of quantum superposition, just like Schrödinger’s cat… On the night of 25 March, he set sail, and by the end of the journey he had ceased to be any one thing, but instead became several different things, both alive and dead, simultaneously.
All here depends on the Italian ‘Spero che ti siano arrivati insieme il telegramma e la lettera’ with ‘insieme’ being ‘together’: the sentence could perhaps also be rendered ‘I hope that the telegram and letter have both arrived’, which is rather less dramatic?
Other theories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
13 October 2012: Chris (an old friend of this blog) writes: A photo of Majorana was discovered recently and according to the forensics people, there are ten points of similarity between the individual known as Mr. Bini and the elusive theorist. lKR writes: This wikipedia page in Italian contains several other possibilities regarding Hector’s disappearance, including one that he gained help from Jesuits to go into a monastery. The letters here by an Italian, are interesting as well. “I refused the sea” could have different meanings: was he considering, then refused some offer to immigrate? If so, it could simply mean “I refused the offer to go overseas.” Or was he considering using the sea or sea water in an experiment and then refused/chose not to do so? The most interesting excerpts here are from Laura Fermi. Did the genius’s uncle cause the death of an infant by burning it in it’s cradle? Accident? I note that it was mentioned that he wrote notes or calculations on his cigarette pack sometimes, and we are in the days here before fabrics were made less flammable, so a dropped ash could have caused his baby cousin’s death, perhaps. It says he accepted responsibility to protect an uncle, but was this bit a cover up for the family genius? (Not that his family was not full of professors and important men, but Hector was a prodigy.) Did guilt over this cause him to become suicidal, or seek solitude/penance as a monk? Note mention of this with the accompanying comments in the link. The descriptions of his character make him sound a bit like a high-functioning genius-autistic or schizophrenic man, a bit more than just “retiring.” Even so, a mental break, needing institutionalization seems a likely possibility. Keeping such things secret in those days of eugenics-gone-mad would have protected his family from more than just embarrassment. I haven’t seen this as a noted theory, but then, I haven’t researched too much on it. He says to AC not to think of him like a girl as that is not the case. (paraphrased a bit) Is he saying not to think of him as a coward, or not to think of him as a girl to be easily dropped after an amorous encounter? Homosexuals were most definitely not (openly) accepted in Facist Italy, and in a Jesuit-taught Catholic. Another interesting thing is that he was in Germany, (and with Eichmann) for months, in 1933, after which he stopped (according to Laura Fermi) performing his work and also avoided his old fellows. Letters seem to show some degree of indoctrination or else his own positive impressions of Nazis and their attitudes about Jews, later apparently dwindling into lesser admiration or else outright confusion. What did he see there, outside of his work with physics? Another possible reason for needing solitude/penance or being suicidal? I have not seen mention of murder as a possibility. However, possible motives: Academic jealousy (yes this can be viscous!) An unknown lover’s jealousy, spouse’s revenge, or lover’s fear of exposure? (Or was this man, at 31, not sexually active yet?) Burned baby’s mama’s revenge? (There would be no greater anger I could imagine, than to think her baby’s life meant less to her family than his career) Eichmann has him eliminated? (Maybe he said” No, I won’t do that” to the Third Reich/Axis Powers? Or maybe his oddness was seen as a mental defect? I know his body didn’t wash up, but is it certain he didn’t get off the boat? Maybe it didn’t wash up because he was killed on land. Now, Beach, here’s the one I know you’ll like best: he turned himself into a test subject and achieved liminality as a state of being. He was like Schrodinger’s cat thereafter neither here nor there, or perhaps both here and there. Perhaps he could occasionally pop in to our reality from his alternate reality(ies) in alternate-space/time(s.) Or, in the ancient way of saying approximately the same thing, he went to the otherworld while yet alive, and was able to appear now and then (when conditions were enabling) as a living person and talk to people in this world. (such has been mentioned in mythologies by magician/alchemists and by prophets, by “witches,” also by people that mess around with the “good folk.”) This theory with either way of saying it, would help explain the Elvis-type phenomena of appearances from Naples to Argentina! Wade sends in meanwhile a fascinating link to another disappeared person, Granger Taylor. thanks Karen, Chris and Wade!