A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age João Magueijo Basic Books Hardcover 304 pages November 2009
“The dead are the pensioners of remembrance,” João Magueijo writes toward the end of A Brilliant Darkness. With his book, Maguijo has built a home for his pensioner, the probably dead but definitely disappeared physicist Ettore Majorana. It may be sometimes a cat house (and you thought physicists were all serious and cerebral and stuff), sometimes a house of mirrors, but Majorana does indeed dwell on every page.
Ettore Majorana, we learn, was the wunderkind of the early atomic age. In his native Italy, the Sicilian worked with Enrico Fermi — or worked circles around Fermi and his circle of geniuses, according to Magueijo. Himself a physicist of some repute, Magueijo isn’t a great writer (his sentences sometimes get tangled in their dangling participles), but he’s clearly a passionate one who cares enough about his subjects to have done vast amounts of homework.
The underlying metaphor in A Brilliant Darkness is that the mysteriously disappeared Majorana is the elusive neutrino which passes through ordinary matter unperturbed and is notoriously hard to detect. (In the time it took you to read the foregoing sentence some 100 trillion neutrinos passed through your body.)
It’s not just a conceit: Majorana was hot on the trail of the neutrino, whose existence had been theorized, when he disappeared on March 26, 1938. Majorana’s work was important to Fermi’s project during World War II: developing the atomic bomb. Magueijo wonders, if Majorana had disappeared, whether the younger man might have tempered the venerable Fermi’s decision to join the Manhattan project.
We’ll never know, of course, and Magueijo, a physicist who deals in probabilities but never in certainties, revels in the epistemological uncertainty. In any case, we get a mystery story wrapped up in a biography that unfolds the history of particle physics in a most enjoyable way.