Ettore Majorana

October 7th: Exhausted


“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 

Fermi pronounced those words when, after days of trying reaching Majorana on the phone, he had the feeling that he disappeared not to be found again.

Majorana was a genius and a mystery. He would write formulas on his cigarette case on the go, he would forget to publish his results unless pushed by his colleagues, he would be called the “great inquisitor” because of his critical comments.

When the spouses Joliot-Curie misinterpreted the results of the radiation of Berillio subjected to the alpha-radiation of Polonium, Majorana immediately commented “How stupid they are! They have discovered the neutral proton and they did not even notice!” – Despite Fermi trying to convince him to publish about the neutral proton hypothesis, he did not bother and a few weeks later Chadwick came to the same conclusion and published about the neutron, research that awarded him the Nobel Prize.

Majorana was doing Science for the sake of. He worked on nuclear exchange forces, intrinsic spins, fermions that are also their antimatter counterpart (Majorana fermions), neutrino’s mass, even quantum computing. And then, one day, he simply vanished. We know very little about it: he had suffered from mental exhaustion, isolated himself, left a note and then -puff- gone. Never to be found again. 

But his legacy continues to shape modern physics.

I have a personal anecdote about Majorana.

I was no normal high-schooler. When my peers were going to concerts and discos, I was attending Physics Prize Ceremonies. In September 2007, I was in Militello (CT, Italy) for the Ettore Majorana Prize, as it was awarded to Francesco Iachello, a theoretical physicist at Yale that was born in Francofonte, my hometown. I even got his autograph – I bet the first one he was ever asked for! Yep, I always treated scientist as superheroes/rockstars.

Immagine 428
A very young, very inspired, very happy me with Prof. Francesco Iachello – just after having got his autograph.

At the event, an actor read a text about Majorana. In the audience, we were given a poster with the text in the shape of an apple (to remind Fermi’s comparison of Majorana and Newton). Once home, I hang that poster just above my bed to be a continuous inspiration for my career.

If you are wondering what’s going on here, look at this post: Inking Science