Posted on: July 17, 2015

The unexplained disappearance of a brilliant Sicilian scientist in 1938 continues to intrigue to this day.  Did he commit suicide?  Did he run away to start a new life in South America?  Could he even have discovered the secret of time travel? This is a very intriguing case.

Ettore Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily in August 1906.  He was a gifted mathematician, engineer and physicist, and in his scientific career was best known for his work on neutrino masses.  For a short while, in 1933, he worked in Leipzig, Germany.  This was not a comfortable time to be there, with the beginning of the Nazi regime, and Hitler’s apocalyptic time in power.

He returned to Rome in the autumn of 1933, suffering from mental exhaustion and gastric trouble.  Over the course of the next few years he seemed to suffer a nervous breakdown.  His personality changed.  He became reclusive, rarely leaving the house.  He shunned friends, refused to go on holiday with his beloved mother (with whom he had previously enjoyed a close relationship), and rarely published any scientific papers.

On 25 March 1938 the 32-year-old Ettore withdrew all his money from his bank account, and set off on a boat trip from Palermo to Naples.  He sent a letter to Antonio Carrelli, the Director of the Naples Physics Institute, saying: “Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable.  There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realise what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students.  For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially in betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months.  I ask you to remember me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your institute, especially Scuiti.  I will keep a good memory of them all at least until 11 PM tonight, possibly later too.  E Majorana”. 

The following day, Carrelli received another note from Ettore, sent from Palermo, in which he wrote “the sea has rejected me, and tomorrow I return to the Hotel Bologna … I have, however, decided to give up teaching”.

At first, this looks like a simple case of someone who had planned to commit suicide, but changed their mind.  The only problem was, that Ettore wasn’t seen again.  His brother found a note from him, left at the Hotel Bologna, in which Ettore instructed his family that “I have only one desire, that you don’t wear black … remember me, if you can, in your hearts and forgive me”.

Friends and colleagues at the time believed it was a tragic case of suicide, although Nobel prize winning scientist Enrico Fermi refused to accept this.  “Ettore was too intelligent.  If he has decided to disappear, no one will be able to find him.  Not in this time, or another”.  Intriguing words: “not in this time, or another”.

Ettore’s case was re-opened in 2011 when Rome Attorney’s Office received a statement from a witness who claimed to have met Ettore in Buenos Aires after World War 2.  The Office analysed a photograph taken of a man there in 1955, and found 10 points of similarity between his likeness and that of Ettore.  They issued a statement that Ettore had been alive between 1955 and 1959, and living in Venezuela.  The fascinating thing about the photograph wasn’t just the likeness to Ettore, but that in it (if it was him) Ettore hadn’t aged!!  This has led some to speculate that Ettore had discovered the secret to time travel.

It would be reassuring to know that Ettore had simply decided to start a new life in South America.  His old life does seem to have become pretty intolerable to him.  His instructions to his family not to wear mourning may bear this out.  Perhaps suicide had initially been his plan, but instead he sensibly decided to start again instead.  Conspiracy theorists also point to the Nazi Germany connection as well.  Ettore does seem to have changed dramatically after his stint at Leipzig.  Perhaps he saw and heard things that plunged him into a prolonged and profound depression.  It has been pointed out that South America was a popular refuge for Nazi’s after World War 2.  If so, what was Ettore doing amongst them though?

And of course there is also the time travel element.  Some have pointed to Ettore’s work.  In 1937 he had predicted that a stable particle could exist which was both matter and anti-matter.  Should both meet, they would annihilate each other, disappearing in a flash of energy.  Certainly Ettore does seem to have been ahead of his time in his work.  Scientists are still investigating his ideas even now, all these decades on.



I think Majorana had an inkling of the way science and technology was going to be used in the upcoming war (by 1938, it was obvious that there was going to be an European or world conflict), and didn’t want to be involved in any way with the war.

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