Friday, February 3, 2023

The mystery of Majorana (La scomparsa di Majorana) - Leonardo Sciascia

In this book the famous Sicilian novelist and essayist Leonardo Sciascia (pronounced Shasha) delves into the mystery of the talented theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana’s disappearance.
A member of the “Via Panisperna boys” - a group of scientists lead by Nobel prize laureate Enrico Fermi - Majorana was considered a rare genius (he was only in in early thirties when he disappeared and had already proven to be greatly more talented than many of his colleagues, in Italy and elsewhere). In the mid thirties the group, working at the Royal physics institute of the University of Rome La Sapienza, made important discoveries in the neutron energy field, which a decade later made the construction of the American atomic bomb possible. The same Fermi, an Italian Jewish, defected to America after receiving his award in Stockholm.
According to the official explanation of the disappearance, Majorana, affected by some sort of depression, would have committed suicide by diving into the Tyrrhenian sea while on board of a ferry cruising from Palermo to Napoli. And that’s what the same scientist wanted everyone to know, as he clearly backed up that version of the story with a couple of letters addressed to his family and colleagues. Sciascia (like many others), though, is not convinced, and reconstructing the sequence of events by means of official documents, records and interviews, he gets to the conclusion that Majorana might have retired to a secluded place after getting a hunch of what the ongoing research would have lead to. His peculiar character, his scientific genius and his acquaintance with colleagues such as Werner Heisenberg, with whom he spent a few months at the University of Leipzig, would justify such a decision.
Werner Heisenberg himself had the same kind of attitude towards that research field and was hoping that his colleagues in New Mexico would share his feelings and act responsibly rather than being instruments in the hands of the government and the military. Unfortunately that was not the case.
Heisenberg and Majorana, two of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, didn’t manage to stop the process that lead to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki disasters, the Cuba missile crisis, the Cold War deadlocks and the ongoing nuclear nightmares that still affect civil societies worldwide nowadays. But they can’t be accused of not having warned us.

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