The Mystery of the Vanishing Physicist

A few scientists have questioned whether their work or discoveries have been turned into something which they did not foresee or hoped would never happen. A good example of this was the splitting of the atom. Those like Enrico Fermi hoped that nuclear energy would be used to create a form of new cleaner power that would benefit humankind. However, it was also used to create atomic weapons.

    One such physicist who we know had worrying thoughts about his part in this was an Italian by the name of Ettore Majorana. And he was not just any physicist; his mentor, Fermi himself, described him as a genius in his field. So, what happened to him and why is it still a mystery. His early life showed him to be a child prodigy but also a very shy child. It is said that he was the first to suggest the existence of neutrons but did not publish his work, allowing James Chadwick to later earn a Nobel Prize.

Ettore Majorana

    At the age of thirty-one, he became a professor at the University of Naples. He also became withdrawn with the result that some called him a hermit. He never touched his salary, that is, until he suddenly withdrew it all and took a ship to Palermo. It was a night crossing. A couple of days later he wrote a letter to the Director of the Naples Institute for Physics which bore the undertones of suggesting he was about to commit suicide.

    However, the very next day, he received a second letter from Ettore saying that he regretted the contents of the first letter and would be returning to Naples. So, two days after arriving in Palermo, he set sail once again to return to Naples. He shared a cabin with another professor and this was the last known sighting of him.

    It is said that a suicide note written to his family was found in his hotel room in Palermo and that he was suffering from the thoughts that nuclear energy was being used to create weapons; a thought which deeply appeared to trouble him. There is another theory given by the Bishop of Trapani who believed Ettore went into retreat in a monastery. This does fit in with a second recollection that a man fitting his description attempted to enter a monastery but was turned away.

    More unlikely theories has him taken by the Soviets and later on by the Nazis to work on their nuclear programmes. A final twist in this tale comes from Valencia in Venezuela where in 2008, Robert Fasani  said Ettore was living their for four years between 1955 and 1959 under the name of Mr Bini. A photograph was obtained of him and a friend of his is supposed to have claimed that he was in fact a famous physicist named Majorana. This new evidence did have the effect of making the Italian police take the decision that foul play could now be ruled out. As regards the photograph, no definite identification was possible. So, the mystery remains.

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