Whodunnit: A Murder Mystery for the SPS History Books

Share This:




Whodunnit: A Murder Mystery for the SPS History Books


William Aaron, Morgan Kaler, Brigitte Lefebvre, Sebastian Pineda, and Michelle Sangillo, SPS Members, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

 Image courtesy of the chapter.As it turns out, famous physicists are quite a murderous bunch! At least that’s what we, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) SPS chapter, decided when we created an SPS murder mystery game. The idea was sparked by our monthly Physics Story Time events, run by chapter activities director William Aaron. As the name suggests, Physics Story Time explores the lives of famous scientists, such as Paul Dirac and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, through engaging storytelling and visuals. The stories were easy to present over Zoom and were a welcome addition to our online chapter meetings in 2020.

While looking into the history of Enrico Fermi for a Story Time, we discovered a real-life mystery—the 1938 nautical disappearance of famed neutrino particle physicist Ettore Majorana, who had belonged to an Italian research group led by Fermi. Our imaginations ran wild, envisioning murders, secret codes, and grand conspiracies set in the heart of the 20th century. Inspired, we set out to create a role-playing murder mystery event for which participants would play historically famous physicists, investigate clues, interview suspects, and catch the murderer. Note: Although inspired by Majorana’s real disappearance, we made up the storyline!

The setting was a 1938 Italian cruise. We had seven characters: Paul Dirac, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Emmy Noether, Enrico Fermi, Giovanni Gentile Jr., Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Werner Heisenberg. Each participant received a sheet with their character’s biographical information, their whereabouts at various times on the cruise ship, and a hidden dark secret. Participants didn’t know their character’s dark secret at the start—it could only be revealed after uncovering enough clues or red herrings. That way, everyone could take part because nobody knew whether their dark secret was murder or some other nefarious deed!

Playing detective Hercule Poirot, Aaron revealed to participants that Majorana’s body had been found in the ship’s dining hall. He announced, “Everyone is a suspect, and we all must investigate together.” In the spirit of Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, he led the party in investigating the items in each room while the physicists questioned each other’s alibis. Alliances quickly formed, and many clues were vigorously examined and hilariously misinterpreted. Was Enrico Fermi a bloodthirsty killer?

Nope. His dark secret was being a kleptomaniac. Was Emmy Noether a homicidal maniac? No, she was just an arsonist. Was Henrietta Swan Leavitt a dastardly murderer? Strangely, her dark secret was that she was a ghost who had died 17 years ago!
At the end of our event, Giovanni Gentile Jr. was revealed to be responsible. As our story goes, he had worked hard to achieve candidacy for a physics professorship in Italy, only to be unseated once Majorana returned from his international studies. Fortunately for Gentile, his father was an important philosopher and political ally to Benito Mussolini, who was more than happy to “take care of Majorana.” With his misdeeds revealed, Giovanni leapt into the ocean to escape the vindictive crowd of physicists, and so ended our investigation.

In reality, it’s unknown whether anything nefarious caused Majorana’s disappearance. In 2011 the Rome Attorney’s Office stated that, based on a picture and eye witnesses, Majorana was believed to have been alive and living in Venezuela in the 1950s. Authorities presume he migrated there voluntarily. For some, however, the explanation isn’t entirely satisfying, and many questions remain.

With the success of our first Murder Mystery Night, we’re excited to make this an annual tradition and plan a new mystery for this academic year. It seems that a good mystery has a knack for bringing scientists together. All in all, the event was a great way for us to bond and have fun in the midst of the pandemic.

More from this department