“Majorana’s science is easily in the same league as that of Einstein or Dirac. To this day I’m amazed that back in 1937, he succeeded in predicting the awkward behavior of a mysterious particle — the neutrino — in terms that are only now being probed.” So writes João Magueijo (a professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London), in the prologue of “A Brilliant Darkness,” his book about the life and mysterious disappearance of theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana, which is best-described as one-third biography, one-third mystery, and one-third physics primer.
“A Brilliant Darkness” is a bold and ambitious treatise, one that seeks to explain Majorana’s behavior, disappearance (at age 31), and his work product. In many ways, Magueijo seems ideal to take on this monumental and elusive undertaking. As a theoretical physicist he can go deep inside the science; as an academic he can speculate how colleagues and their personalities (not to mention group dynamics) affected and influenced Majorana; and as someone who like[s] to collect Majorana conspiracies the way others collect stamps, he can systematically analyze the wildly divergent theories about what might have happened to his subject, who boarded a ship in Palermowith his passport and $70,000 on March 26, 1938, and was never heard from again.
Magueijo does a thorough job of detailing Majorana’s life story, from his unhappy childhood and teen years (he considered himself ugly, leading the author to quip that his soul mate was the neutrino), through to his time with Enrico Fermi’s research group the Via Panisperna Boys at the Via Panisperna Institute in Rome. The author highlights Majorana’s dismissive attitude toward publishing his work, and attempts to explain why he consistently failed to seek credit for his discoveries. Finally, he addresses the young scientist’s descent into depression, and attempts to answer the question of why he disappeared (Was it suicide? Did he flee to Argentina? Stage his death?), before admitting that we don’t know and even if we found out for sure what actually happened, we’d never know why he did it — which is far more important.
But there’s something a little off-putting about the book’s conversational tone and the author’s periodic use of foul language (both of which belie the subject matter). It’s also notable that Magueijo repeatedly advances the notion that Majorana remains underappreciated, claiming that he was too far ahead of his time, and — since we can’t be sure he has passed away — Majorana should be given the Nobel Prize for Physics, arguing that nothing prevents this illustrious prize from being given in absentia.
While Magueijos advocacy may be a bit over the top, that doesn’t change the fact that “A Brilliant Darkness” is a compelling read. However, a background in physics is probably necessary to fully appreciate the author’s efforts.