"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". Enrico Fermi
This month I am going to write about Ettore Majorana, an Italian supergenius (https://pos.sissa.it/cgi-bin/reader/conf.cgi?confid=37) who disappeared in 1938 -just before WW2- and who seems to have emigrated to Venezuela. I remember to have had an interesting conversation about him with a nice cousin I had in Caracas, Velia: she died of cancer years ago, but I still remember her warm & friendly personality and I want to dedicate to her memory this month article.
I still remember -also- when she gave me thanks for having helped her sister to remain in her university and complete the 'Alma mater' graduation (I spent ten days -requested by her mother- going around in Caracas with this sister only in order to let her "survive" the terrible depression she had, because continuously "attacked" in the Universidad Central Venezuela while being labeled as a "sifrina engreida" (a rich & proud girl of Caracas top society): it seems that my "connections" in the communist groups of that university -of which I have spoken in my January article- helped to stop the harassment she was having and that was probably forcing Velia's sister to quit her studies in "periodismo".
About Ettore Majorana and his disappearance there are different explanations written in a lot of books and even in a few movies. The one I think is the most probable is the one that is related to his emigration to Venezuela (https://roma.corriere.it/notizie/cronaca/15_febbraio_04/procura-ettore-majorana-vivo-venezuela-il-1955-1959-d1a6aeda-ac7f-11e4-88df-4d6b5785fffa.shtml).
And that he was an Italian emigrant in Venezuela was "possibly" confirmed to my father personally by one of the managers working under his supervision, in the Banco Latino of Puerto La Cruz/Barcelona (eastern Venezuela): his surname was Majorana, born in Catania but not family related to Ettore Majorana. This manager told my father that he lived in Valencia in the 1950s and that he met in that city with Ettore Majorana, who admitted -talking privately in "catanese dialect" to him- to have left Italy in 1938 because he did not want to collaborate in the development of the atomic weapon. Sincerely, my father didn't know if this declaration was true or invented by this manager, but he always wondered: for what reason this serious person had to create this lie? This manager was the director of a bank branch and was considered a respected professional who only said serious things: for what reason he should have "invented" this lie?
Of course, we all know that this worldwide famous Ettore Majorana was born in the region of Sicily where was born more than two thousands years ago another supergenius: Archimedes, the father of the "Mathematical Physics". Since his twenties he was working with Enrico Fermi (the 1938 Nobel in Physics) -in the so called "Group of Spanisperma" of Rome- in the studies for the development of the first atomic bomb, a powerful armament that could have given the Axis the victory in WW2: it seems that he preferred to disappear in 1938, in order not to give the information about his studies & discoveries to Mussolini's fascism. Indeed, Majorana’s comprehension of the Physics of his time, according to Enrico Fermi, had a profundity and completeness that few others in the world could match: Majorana was one of the first researchers to understand the Quantum physics of the Black Holes in the Universe. He discovered the anti-particles now called -in order to honor him- the "Majorana Fermions".
Furthermore recently, on August 2018, a strong evidence for the existence of Majorana bound states (or "Majorana anyons") in an iron-based superconductor, which many alternative trivial explanations cannot account for, was reported by researchers in Prof. Gao Hong-jun's team and Prof. Ding Hong's team at Institute of Physics (Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Chinese Academy of Sciences), when they used scanning tunneling spectroscopy on the superconducting Dirac surface state of the iron-based superconductor. It was the first time that Majorana particles were observed in a bulk of pure substance.
Finally, let me pinpoint that if true that Majorana died in Valencia, the only way to know if he really lived in Venezuela would be to find his tomb and get his DNA checked with the one of his relatives in Catania. But that is going to be very hard to be done....
The following are excerpts from an article written by M. Hanks about Majorana's life, disappearance and possible last years in Valencia (Venezuela):
Ettore Majorana was born in Catania 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.
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 in 1937 became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Naples, where his attitudes led to him becoming increasingly withdrawn from the world.
Majorana's last-published paper, in 1937, was an elaboration of a symmetrical theory of electrons and positrons. In that year, Majorana predicted that in the class of particles known as Fermions there should be particles that are their own antiparticles (the so-called "Majorana Fermions"). Indeed the solution of Majorana's equation yields particles that are their own anti-particle, now usually referred to as "Majorana Fermions", that seems -possibly- linked to the "Black Holes" of the Universe. In April 2012, some of what Majorana predicted may have been confirmed in experiments on hybrid semiconductor-superconductor wire devices. These experiments may potentially lead to a better understanding of Quantum mechanics and may help build a Quantum computer. There has also been speculation that at least some part of the "missing mass" in the universe, which cannot be detected except by inference of its gravitational influences, may be composed of Majorana particles.
Majorana disappeared in unknown circumstances during a boat trip from Palermo to Naples on 25 March 1938. Despite several investigations, his body was not found and his fate is still uncertain. He had apparently withdrawn all of his money from his bank account prior to making his trip to Palermo. Of course, in the opinion of many researchers, if he was going to commit suicide or go to a monastery because of a religious crisis -as someone has suggested- why he withdrew a lot of his money from his own bank account just before this boat trip? Obviously that money was going to be used for something, like a travel to South America where he could have lived for decades without being discovered.
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 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 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.
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.
Indeed some of the Majorana family members, as well as researchers involved, felt that Majorana had gone into hiding, fearing the ethical and logistical implications on his work could help facilitate the creation of atomic weaponry.