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Ettore Majorana (Italian pronunciation: [ˈɛttore majoˈraːna]; born August 1906; missing, presumed dead on 27 March 1938) was an Italian theoretical physicist who worked on neutrino masses. He disappeared suddenly under mysterious circumstances while going by ship from Palermo to Naples. The Majorana equation and Majorana fermions are named after him.
Majorana was born in Catania, Sicily. Mathematically gifted, he was very young when he joined Enrico Fermi's team in Rome as one of the "Via Panisperna boys", who took their name from the street address of their laboratory.
His uncle Quirino Majorana was also a physicist.
His first paper, published in 1928, was written when he was an undergraduate and coauthored by Giovanni Gentile Jr., a junior professor in the Institute of Physics in Rome. This work was an early quantitative application to atomic spectroscopy of Fermi's statistical model of atomic structure (now known as the Thomas-Fermi model, due to its contemporaneous description by Llewellyn Thomas).
In this paper, Majorana and Gentile performed first-principles calculations within the context of this model that gave a good account of experimentally-observed core electron energies of gadolinium and uranium, and of the fine structure splitting of caesium lines observed in optical spectra. In 1931, Majorana published the first paper on the phenomenon of autoionization in atomic spectra, designated by him as "spontaneous ionization"; an independent paper in the same year, published by Allen Shenstone of Princeton University, designated the phenomenon as "auto-ionization", a name first used by Pierre Auger. This name has since become conventional, without the hyphen.
In 1932, he published a paper in the field of atomic spectroscopy concerning the behaviour of aligned atoms in time-varying magnetic fields. This problem, also studied by I.I. Rabi and others, led to an important sub-branch of atomic physics, that of radio-frequency spectroscopy. In the same year, Majorana published his paper on a relativistic theory of particles with arbitrary intrinsic momentum, in which he developed and applied infinite dimensional representations of the Lorentz group, and gave a theoretical basis for the mass spectrum of elementary particles. Like most of Majorana's papers in Italian, it languished in relative obscurity for several decades. (It is discussed in detail by D. M. Fradkin, Amer. J. Phys., vol. 34, pp. 314–318 (1966)).
He was the first to propose the idea that an unknown particle involved in the experiments of Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot should not only be neutral, but have a mass about the same as the proton; this particle is the neutron. Fermi told him to write an article, but Majorana didn't bother, and the credit was given to James Chadwick (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery).
Solution of Majorana's equation yields particles that are their own anti-particle, now referred to as Majorana Fermions. 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, that cannot be detected except by inference of its gravitational influences, may be composed of Majorana particles.
Majorana was known for not seeking credit for his discoveries, considering his work to be banal.
"At Fermi's urging, Majorana left Italy early in 1933 on a grant from the National Research Council. In Leipzig, Germany, he met Werner Heisenberg. In letters he subsequently wrote to Heisenberg, Majorana revealed that he had found in him, not only a scientific colleague, but a warm personal friend." Majorana also travelled to Copenhagen, where he worked with Niels Bohr, another Nobel Prize winner, and a friend and mentor of Heisenberg.
The Nazis had come to power in Germany as Majorana arrived there. He studied with Werner Heisenberg in Leipzig, and worked on a theory of the nucleus (published in German in 1933) which, in its treatment of exchange forces, represented a further development of Heisenberg's theory of the nucleus. Majorana's last-published paper, in 1937, this time in Italian, was an elaboration of a symmetrical theory of electrons and positrons.
"In the fall of 1933, Majorana returned to Rome in poor health, having developed acute gastritis in Germany and apparently suffering from nervous exhaustion. Put on a strict diet, he grew reclusive and became harsh in his dealings with his family. To his mother, with whom he had previously shared a warm relationship, he had written from Germany that he would not accompany her on their customary summer vacation by the sea. Appearing at the institute less frequently, he soon was scarcely leaving his home; the promising young physicist had become a hermit. For nearly four years he shut himself off from friends and stopped publishing."
During these years, in which he published few articles, Majorana wrote many small works on several topics: from Geophysics, to Electrical Engineering, from Mathematics to the Relativity. These unpublished papers, preserved in Domus Galileiana in Pisa, recently have been edited by Erasmo Recami and Salvatore Esposito.
He became a full professor of theoretical physics at the University of Naples in 1937, without needing to take an examination because of his "high fame of singular expertise reached in the field of theoretical physics", independently of the competition rules.
Majorana did prescient theoretical work on neutrino masses, a currently active subject of research. He also worked on an idea that mass may exert a small shielding effect on gravitational waves, which did not gain much traction.
Majorana disappeared in unknown circumstances during a boat trip from Palermo to Naples. Despite several investigations, his fate is still uncertain. His body has not been found. He had apparently withdrawn all of his money from his bank account, prior to making a trip to Palermo. He may have travelled to Palermo hoping to visit his friend Emilio Segrè, a professor at the university there, but Segrè was in California at that time and, as a Jew, was barred from returning to Italy under a 1938 law passed by Benito Mussolini's government. On March 25, 1938 Majorana wrote a note to Antonio Carrelli, Director of the Naples Physics Institute, asking to be remembered to his colleagues and saying that he had made an unavoidable decision and apologising for the inconvenience that his disappearance would cause. This was followed rapidly by a telegram cancelling his earlier plans. He apparently bought a ticket from Palermo to Naples and was never seen again.
Several possible explanations for his disappearance have been proposed, including:
The Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia has summarized some of the results of these investigations and these hypotheses in his passionate book La Scomparsa di Majorana (Einaudi, 1975 - English translation: The Moro Affair and The Mystery of Majorana, Carcanet, 1987, ISBN 0-85635-700-6). However, some of Sciascia's conclusions were refuted by some of Majorana's former colleagues, including E. Amaldi and E. Segrè. The various hypotheses on Majorana's disappearance have been extensively discussed by Erasmo Recami in his book "Il caso Majorana: Lettere, testimonianze, documenti" (Di Renzo Editore, Roma, 2000), and in a journal article (E. Recami, "I nuovi documenti sulla scomparsa del fisico Ettore Majorana", Scientia, vol. 110, pp. 577–588 (1975); English version titled "New Evidence on the Disappearance of the Physicist Ettore Majorana", Scientia, vol. 110, p. 589 ff. (1975)). In the above-mentioned book and article, Recami discusses critically the various rival explanations concerning Majorana's disappearance, including those advanced by Sciascia in his short book, and presents highly suggestive evidence to the effect that Majorana travelled to Argentina, where he may have earned his living as an engineer.
On March, 2011, Italian media say Rome Attorney's office announced an inquiry into the statement made by a witness about meeting with Majorana in Buenos Aires in the years after World War II. On June 7, 2011 Italian media reported that the Carabinieri's RIS had analyzed a photograph of a man taken in Argentina in 1955, finding ten points of similarity with Majorana's face.
The year 2006 marked Majorana's centenary.
The International Conference on "Ettore Majorana's legacy and the Physics of the XXI century" EMC2006 was held in commemoration of the centennial of Majorana's birth in Catania October 5–6, 2006. The conference Proceedings with articles of high ranked international scientists A. Bianconi, D. Brink, N. Cabibbo, R. Casalbuoni, G. Dragoni, S. Esposito, E. Fiorini, M. Inguscio, R.W. Jackiw, L. Maiani, R. Mantegna, E. Migneco, R. Petronzio, B. Preziosi, R. Pucci, E. Recami, and A. Zichichi have been published by POS Proceedings of Science of SISSA Edited by Andrea Rapisarda (chairman), Paolo Castorina, Francesco Catara, Salvatore Lo Nigro, Emilio Migneco, Francesco Porto, and Emanuele Rimini.
A commemorative book "Ettore Majorana Scientific Papers on the occasion of the centenary of the birth" of his (nine) collected papers, with commentary and English translations, was published by the Italian Physical Society.
To commemorate the centenary Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics' (EJTP) also published a special issue of twenty articles dedicated to the modern development of Majorana’s legacy.
The Electronic Journal of Theoretical Physics also established a prize in his memory to mark the centenary. The "Majorana Medal" or Majorana Prize is an annual prize for researchers who have shown peculiar creativity, critical sense, and mathematical rigour in theoretical physics — in its broadest sense. The recipients of the 2006 Majorana Prize were Erasmo Recami (University of Bergamo and INFN) and George Sudarshan (University of Texas); of the 2007 Majorana Prize: Lee Smolin (Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Canada), Eliano Pessa (Centro Interdipartimentale di Scienze Cognitive, Università di Pavia and Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Pavia Piazza Botta, Italy) and Marcello Cini (Dipartimento di Fisica, Università La Sapienza, Roma, Italy).
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