You Either Live or Die

Ettore Mojarana disappears to prove the theory of Schrodinger's Cat

If you watch the hit TV sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, you often come across the concept of the Schrodinger’s Cat. Today’s blog post is based on this premise, so before we go into it, we need to know what this cat is all about.

Schrödinger’s cat is an experiment about quantum physics. Schrödinger suggested it in 1935.

Schrödinger wrote:

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is locked up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

This sounds awfully complicated but it has a very simple explanation. In layman’s terms Schrödinger stated that if you place a cat and something that could kill the cat (a radioactive atom) in a box and sealed it, you would not know if the cat was dead or alive until you opened the box, so that until the box was opened, the cat was (in a sense) both “dead and alive”. This is used to represent how scientific theory works. Nobody knows if this theory is right or wrong. But there are many who tried to find it out. Which brings us to today’s post for the #AToZChallenge.

Ettore Mojarana was a Sicilian theoretical physicist born on 5thAugust 1906. He actually began his studies in engineering but switched to physics in 1928. On 25thMarch 1938 at the age of 32, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances while going by ship from Palmero to Naples.

At an early age he joined Enrico Fermi’s “Via Paniperna boys”, a group of brilliant researchers credited with the discovery of slow neutrons. He was supposed to have the sharpest mind among all the researchers. Enrico Fermi wrote about Mojarana-

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.

Often, brilliant borders on eccentric. He was a loner and hated company. He shunned public life. On the 25thof March 1938, at the age of thirty-one, Mojarana boarded a ship from Palermo to Naples. But he never disembarked. Once his friends and family realised that he had vanished, they began searching for him frantically. During this search they found a three letters written by Mojarana to Antonio Carrelli, the Director of the Naples Physics Institute. The first one said –

Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for 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 Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too.”

But then the mystery deepened because that same evening Carrelli received another telegram saying that he had changed his mind and urged the director to ignore the first letter. To make matters even more confusing, Carrelli received a final letter which said “ Dear Carrelli, I hope you got my telegram and my letter at the same time. The sea rejected me and I’ll be back tomorrow at the Hotel Bologna travelling perhaps with this letter

His friends and family couldn’t decipher what he was trying to tell through these letters. They thought that he had committed suicide. But nobody had seem him jump from the ferry but his final letter seemed to indicate that he had.

As the years rolled by, more and more theories started surfacing about his disappearance. He became somewhat of an Elvis Presley or Subhash Chandra Bose. Some thought that he was killed by the Nazis, some said that he had joined a monastery while others speculated that he had fled to another country. There were even sightings of a beggar who seemed very much like him and helped the poor kids with their mathematics.

It was only in 2006, that a theoretical physicist Oleg Zaslavskii who came up with the idea that his disappearance had a remarkable similarity with the Schrodinger’s cat experiment. Now it is being increasingly accepted that this was the reason for the mystery.

Zaslavskii noted that Mojarana’s disappearance left the researchers with two possibilities i.e. he either committed suicide by jumping overboard or disembarked and went into hiding. This weirdly matches the two possibilities of the light photon i.e. Mojarana either fell into the waves or he walked off the boat in a straight line(Electrified Sheep- Alex Boese).

It might sound far-fetched at first, but Zaslavskii explained that the letters sent by Mojarana were peculiar.

First letter said that he had decided to disappear

Second said that he had changed his mind.

Third said that it hoped that Carrelli had received the two possibilities at the same time.

One would assume that the first letter would be received first followed by the second. By presuming that Carelli had received both the letters simultaneously meant that Mojarana deliberately arranged for that to happen so that director Carelli would have to consider two contradictory alternatives simultaneously. By doing so, Mojarana placed himself in a state of quantum super position, just like Schrodinger’s cat.

Mojarana was eccentric enough to do it since physics was his life. He didn’t have much regard for people and hated being around people. So he could’ve engineered the entire disappearance for the benefit of his fellow theoretical physicists. As Alex Boese says in his ELECTRIFIED SHEEP –

On the night of 25thmarch, he set sail, and by the end of his journey he had ceased to be any one thing, but instead became several different things, both alive and dead simultaneously.

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018 My theme for this month is DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED. You can read all other posts here

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