Esposito, S. & Naddeo, A. Found Phys (2012) 42: 1586. doi:10.1007/s10701-012-9685-1
The two-electron atom is the simplest nontrivial quantum system not amenable to exact solutions. Today, its relevance in the development of quantum mechanics and its pedagogical value within the realm of atomic physics are widely recognized. In this work, an historical review of the known different methods and results devised to study such a problem is presented, with an emphasis to the calculations of the ground state energy of helium. Then we discuss several, related, unpublished results obtained around the same years by Ettore Majorana, which remained unknown till recent times. Among them a general variant of the variational method appears to be particularly interesting, even for current research in atomic and nuclear physics: it takes directly into account, already in the trial wavefunction, the action of the full Hamiltonian operator of a given quantum system. Further relevant contributions, specialized to the two-electron problem, include the introduction of the remarkable concept of an effective nuclear charge different for the two electrons (thus generalizing previous known results) and an application of the perturbative method, where the atomic number Z was treated effectively as a continuous variable. Finally a survey of results, relevant mainly for pedagogical reasons, is given; in particular we focus on simple broad range estimates of the helium ionization potential, obtained by suitable choices for the wavefunction, as well as on a simple alternative to Hylleraas’ method, which led Majorana to first order calculations comparable in accuracy with well-known order 11 results derived, in turn, by Hylleraas.