Ettore Majorana: genius and mystery – CERN Courier

Ettore Majorana: genius and mystery

From the page: “Ettore Majorana est né en Sicile en 1906. Physicien extrêmement doué, il faisait partie à Rome dans les années 30 du fameux groupe de Fermi avant de disparaître mystérieusement en mars 1938. Dans cet article, Antonino Zichichi jette un double regard sur Ettore Majorana: le mystère de sa disparition et le génie de sa contribution à la physique, en s’appuyant sur les souvenirs de grands physiciens comme Fermi et Oppenheimer.

Ettore Majorana was born in Sicily in 1906. An extremely gifted physicist, he was a member of Enrico Fermi’s famous group in Rome in the 1930s, before mysteriously disappearing in March 1938.

Ettore Majorana

The great Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, was convinced that Majorana decided to disappear because he foresaw that nuclear forces would lead to nuclear explosives a million times more powerful than conventional bombs, like those that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sciascia came to visit me at Erice where we discussed this topic for several days. I tried to change his mind, but there was no hope. He was too absorbed by an idea that, for a writer, was simply too appealing. In retrospect, after years of reflection on our meetings, I believe that one of my assertions about Majorana’s genius actually corroborated Sciascia’s idea. At one point in our conversations I assured Sciascia that it would have been nearly impossible – given the state of physics in those days – for a physicist to foresee that a heavy nucleus could be broken to trigger the chain reaction of nuclear fission. Impossible for what Enrico Fermi called first-rank physicists, those who were making important inventions and discoveries, I suggested, but not for geniuses such as Majorana. Maybe this information convinced Sciascia that his idea about Majorana was not just probable, but actually true – a truth that his disappearance further corroborated.

Laura Fermi

There are also those who think Majorana’s disappearance was related to spiritual faith and that he retreated to a monastery. This perspective on Majorana as a believer comes from his confessor, Monsignor Riccieri, who I met when he came from Catania to Trapani as Bishop. Remarking on his disappearance, Riccieri told me that Majorana had experienced “mystical crises” and that, in his opinion, suicide in the sea was to be excluded. Bound by the sanctity of confessional, he could tell me no more. After the establishment of the Erice Centre, which bears Majorana’s name, I had the privilege of meeting Majorana’s entire family. No one ever believed it was suicide. Majorana was an enthusiastic and devout Catholic and, moreover, he withdrew his savings from the bank a week before his disappearance. The hypothesis shared by his family and others who had the privilege of knowing him (Fermi’s wife Laura was one of the few) is that he withdrew to a monastery.

Laura Fermi recalls that when Majorana disappeared, Enrico Fermi said to his wife, “Ettore was too intelligent. If he has decided to disappear, no-one will be able to find him. Nevertheless, we have to consider all possibilities.” In fact, Fermi even tried to get Benito Mussolini himself to support the search. On that occasion (in Rome in 1938), Fermi said: “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.”

Animated discussion

A genius, however, who looked on his own work as completely banal: once a problem was solved, Majorana did his best to leave no trace of his own brilliance. This can be witnessed in the stories of the neutron discovery and the hypothesis of the neutrinos that bear his name, as recalled below by Emilio Segré and Giancarlo Wick (on the neutron) and by Bruno Pontecorvo (on neutrinos). Majorana’s comprehension of the physics of his time had a completeness that few others in the world could match….”

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