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Constance Walter

In 1937, Italian physicist Ettore Majorana hypothesized the existence of the Majorana fermion, a particle that is its own anti-particle. In 1938, he mysteriously disappeared while traveling by ship from Palermo to Naples. Although many believed he drowned, rumors also suggested he had committed suicide or taken refuge in a convent. Another theory says he disappeared because he feared for his life after discoveries he made about the atom.

His Majorana equation formed the basis for decades of research into the elusive neutrino, including the Majorana experiment at Sanford Lab where scientists are seeking a rare decay called neutrinoless double-beta decay, which could prove neutrinos are their own anti-particles.

For several months, the Majorana Demonstrator has been collecting data with a prototype. "This is a test bed for the actual experiment," said Steven Elliott of Los Alamos National Laboratory. "We've vetted designs of certain components and debugged some of the electronics. By the time the new module is ready to go, we'll be confident in its performance.? With most of the strings of germanium detectors complete, Elliott hopes the new module will be ready to begin collecting data by early summer.

Although Majorana researchers hope to be the first to discover the Majorana particle, it's proving just as mysterious as its namesake. "The neutrino is neutral and interacts weakly so we just don't know if it is its own anti-particle," Elliott said.

In February, an article in Ansa Science Technology suggests Majorana resurfaced as late as 1959 in Valencia, Venezuela, South America. Italian prosecutors, who had reopened an investigation into his disappearance, recently closed the case when forensic scientists determined Majorana appeared in a photo under the surname "Bini." But not everyone is convinced, including Elliott.

"It's hard to imagine someone like Ettore Majorana would have stayed incognito for so long. Still, it's an interesting story and we're still talking about it nearly 80 years later," he said.