Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Unique Physics Experiment?

Ettore Majorana (b.1906) was an Italian physicist, who was famous in his time. Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, compared Majorana's genius with Newton and Galileo. Fermi was also Majorana's supervisor at the Institute of Physics in Rome. These days Majorana is credited with predicting that neutrinos have mass, something which has been confirmed only in the past decade. He also had an idea that was developed by the famous physicist Richard Feynman. This was called integral path formulation, which states that the state of a particle at any time is the sum of an infinite number of paths that it could have followed until then.

Majorana had the idea a decade before Feynman developed it in 1948. On 27 March 1938, at the age of 31, Majorana disappeared during a boating trip between Palermo, Sicily and Naples. His body was never found, and people have argued over whether he committed suicide, was kidnapped, or changed his identity and began a new life.

In the summer of 2006, theoretical physicist Oleg Zaslavskii of Karazin University, Ukraine, suggested that the ambiguity about the fate of Ettore Majorana was designed by he himself as a "living" demonstration of quantum superposition. This paradox, in which a particle can simultaneously exist in two mutually exclusive quantum states, is usually demonstrated by Schrodinger's Cat, a thought experiment in which the cat can be both alive and dead at the same time-until it is observed.

The poor feline is usually (in thought only) put in a box where a container of poisonous gas is hooked up to a device with a small hammer that will break the glass container that holds the gas and kill the kitty if it is triggered. This is where the observer paradox comes in. The device is always thought to be triggered by the radioactive decay of an atom that has exactly a 50/50 chance of decaying at any one time.

The physics equations tell us that until someone looks in the box and sees whether the cat is alive or dead that the feline exists in a state of being equally alive and dead at the same time! Majorana is thought to have wanted to mirror this paradox with events in his own life, says Zaslavskii. The argument is based on three messages that Majorana sent to his family and to Antonio Carrelli, the head of the Institute of Physics at the University of Naples.

First, he sent a letter expressing his intention to commit suicide, which he followed with a telegram refuting the idea that he was suicidal. In the third letter, Majorana says he hopes that Carrelli received both the original letter and the telegram at the same time. "A sender should hope that the second message came first, to cancel the earlier one with the more disturbing content," said Zaslavskii. Instead, Majorana wanted two mutually exclusive outcomes-his suicide-or survival-to co-exist, making it, as Zaslavskii said, the "quantum mechanical version of the Hamlet question." It was when Zaslavskii looked into the background of Majorana's disappearance that he became curious-and suspicious.

For instance, Majorana is thought to have hired impostors to pose as himself during the boat trip: "I suddenly realized that all these separate and seemingly extravagant details are united by the same underlying idea. It was very impressive," he said. Some people believe that Majorana survived the boat trip and from 1940 to 1973 lived in Mazara, Sicily, under the name of Tommaso Lipari. There he refused any kind of charity, and carried a wooden stick that had a pin at the end to pick up cigarette butts to smoke.

The life 'Lipari' had in the town caused people to call him the "Dog Man" because he lived like a solitary stray dog searching through trash bins. One man who lived in Mazara said that 'Lipari' had confessed to being Majorana. Another was trying to help his son with a difficult mathematics project and found 'Lipari' was familiar with complicated theories in maths and physics and helped solve his son's project.

If Mr. Majorana did indeed do this to "prove a point" in modern physics-and who is to say-I just chanced on the story glancing through old issues of Fortean Times magazine-here is what I wonder (unless he was completely unhinged-this little "experiment" of his would have been extremely cruel on any family members he had if he came from a loving family). I wonder if he did this because he knew if he planned his disappearance well enough, that a lot of people would be looking at his case-looking at him essentially-and trying to decide the truth.

Maybe Mr. Majorana thought "his" reality would change-in the same way of the "Schrodinger's Cat" experiment because of the interaction of different human consciousnesses trying to decide if he was alive or dead? It was just a thought for why someone would do this, and that is if he did indeed do this for reasons of modern science. Certain things about his case are irrefutable-the boat ride-suicide notes-etcetera. I thought it very interesting to think about whatever the truth to the story might be-and very much like the "observer paradox"-maybe it just depends on who is looking? New Scientist, 5 August 2006; Fortean Times 220:09



I hope to be back soon and start again with the mythical (or not so mythical:-) creatures series. Health issues keep on sidetracking me, but hopefully I can get back on course. I do have a lot of information written down already for the next creature-it's just not quite ready to go. Thanks again so much for your kind, thoughtful and intelligent comments!


X. Dell said...

And people call me a conspiracy theorist. My first gues would be that Majorana committed suicide, simply because there's a case history for it (the mentioning to friends, a letter). That his death reflected his work could be a fluke, or a designed plan on the part of Majorana, or merely an unconscious engineering.

Be that as it may, I have always been intrigued by the this aspect of quantum physics. Shrodinger's cat is thought of as both dead and alive because, in actuality (according to some theories, the cat is both dead and alive, depending on your reality--which means that when you peak under the box, you're seeing one of what could be infinite posibilities (dealing with the exact condition of the cat). It's called the "Many Worlds Theory," Of which I'm sure you're acquainted.

If you're unfamiliar with it, you might want to check out a radio show called Radio Lab. You'd probably find all the episodes fascinating (probably the best thing to listen to when your back is sore). But in response to this post, you might want to listen to the episode titled "Beyond Time." If you don't wish to listen to the entire program, the part that deals most directly to this post begins about thirty-four minutes into the broad/podcast.

Alex Robinson said...

What an intriguing post Devin! I'm going off to do some work now AND contemplate the likelihood of this. Would someone do that I wonder!!

I hope all is wonderful in Mesa my friend :)

Devin said...

Alex-so glad you enjoyed this article -it had been in my mind awhile to do it here as it ties different subjects together-things are wonderful here in Mesa-my only complaint-time is going to fast now!!! I am trying to enjoy every blessed day of these "low" temps haha 70-80 for a low:-) -someone make time slow down!!!

Xdell-I am so happy that you noticed this article !! If Majorana did indeed commit suicide -I wonder-could he have been driven mad (again this is just wild speculation on my part) by the concepts and the meanings of what the discoveries of Quantum mechanics represented-like they say Georg Cantor was by his contemplation of his discoveries of infinity and the transfinite numbers?
hey thanks so much for the Radio Lab link also -never heard of it-sounds intriguing to say the least-
I am familiar with the Many Worlds theory and the hullaballoo it created when physicists began debating some of tne aspects of QM-to some -as you stated-the cat does indeed inhabit a "dead/alive" reality until it is observed

I will definitely check into the link you gave -I am lucky in a certain sense for the blogging aspect of my back pain because usually the most comfortable position is with my back propped up at a slight angle -and if i have research to do out of a book this is the perfect position to read and write in for me
and listen to the show!!
all the best in the world to the both of you and I hope you have a beautiful weekend in NZ alex coming up and I hope you have 4 days off starting today Xdell-thanks so much for your comments!!