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The Majorana mystery

02 Mar 2010
A troubled genius

“For years after I first learned about Ettore Majorana, I wanted to write a book about his life… but I always deferred to an uncertain future the act of putting pen to paper. Then, one day I read a newspaper clipping and realized that the mystery was about to come full circle. Ettore had just turned one hundred, and a major discovery had been made in the deep waters near Catania. The time had arrived for the final unveiling of the Majorana legacy.”

With that spirit, the theoretical physicist João Magueijo presents A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age. This lengthily subtitled work is a peculiar and intensely personal biography of Majorana, the Italian scientist who, in his short lifetime, was considered a genius on a par with Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton by none other than Enrico Fermi. Today, Majorana’s name appears in many areas of cutting-edge physics research, ranging from elementary particle physics to applied condensed matter and mathematical physics. Such long-lasting contributions are certainly a testament to Majorana’s uncommon far-sightedness, while his disappearance after boarding a ship bound for Naples on 25 March 1938 plays – or at least ought to play – only a marginal role in explaining why he has captured the interest of so many scientists and historians.

Ettore Majorana was born on 5 August 1906 in Catania, Sicily, into a family with a rich scientific, technological and political heritage. The extended Majorana family included renowned scientists, jurists, members of the Italian parliament and university chancellors. In 1923 Ettore enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Rome, where he excelled and counted physicists like Giovanni Gentile Jr and the future Nobel laureate Emilio Segrè among his friends. Urged on by Segrè and Edoardo Amaldi, who at the time had recently changed subjects from engineering to physics, Majorana eventually agreed to meet Fermi; afterwards, he decided to switch to physics as well.

At the time, Fermi was head of Rome’s Institute of Physics, located on the historic Via Panisperna. Magueijo describes this set-up as “a kindergarten for geniuses: a group of young, extremely bright physicists led by Fermi [who] worked at an institute where they were given free rein”. Majorana made substantial theoretical contributions to the group’s research, and in 1928 – while still an undergraduate – he published his first paper, on atomic physics.

Somewhere along the line, however, Majorana developed an odd aversion to getting his work into print. He was to publish only nine articles from 1928 to 1933 (and one more in 1937), and most of these likely appeared only at the insistence of Fermi or others. Nevertheless, his uninterrupted theoretical activity during this period is well attested by his friends and colleagues, and, fortunately, a large part of this work has been preserved in his personal notes.

Although unknown in the 1930s, most of this work has now been published. It is therefore strange that Magueijo does not seem to take it properly into account in his biography. But even mentioning only two outstanding papers, as Magueijo does, is enough to reveal Majorana’s genius. For example, in his famous neutrino paper of 1937, “Symmetric theory of electrons and positrons,” he introduced the so-called Majorana neutrino hypothesis. When the paper appeared, it was revolutionary, because it argued that the antimatter partner of a given matter particle could be the particle itself – in other words, that a particle could be its own antiparticle. Moreover, with unprecedented far-sightedness Majorana suggested that the then-undiscovered neutrino could be such a particle. Today, many experiments are devoted to detecting some of the phenomena that arise from Majorana’s hypothesis, including neutrino oscillation and possible neutrinoless double beta decay. Yet according to Magueijo, Majorana considered the neutrino paper “a minor appendix” to another paper he published in 1932, which he regarded as his real masterpiece: “Relativistic theory of elementary particles with arbitrary spin'”.

In light of these fundamental contributions – and many others not considered in the book – the author’s conviction that “a lot of Ettore’s apparent powers was mise-en-scene“, or a bit of an act, is quite amazing. Another surprising assertion (also unsupported by evidence) is that Majorana “vexed” Fermi on a psychological level. At one point, Magueijo writes that “Fermi felt humiliated by Ettore’s genius but also by his overall attitude towards science and life. Because beyond his light-hearted side, Fermi had a big complex. Not with regard to women, like Ettore, but with regard to science.” Several pages later, the author is even less kind, suggesting that “Fermi was intellectually a bit limited. He had great skills but, above all, relied on vast stores of energy, hard work, and determination: pure brute force. His imagination was lacking.”

The author’s own imagination does not fail, not when he tries to explain physical concepts, nor especially, when he outlines the character and personality of Majorana. Several presumed anecdotes are, in Magueijo’s telling, unprintable in a “family magazine” like Physics World, but in other respects the following passage is typical: “He was brought up by social outcasts and grew monstrously distorted, lacking social skills and independence, full of ineptitude. People like him – when they don’t become criminals, drug addicts, or psychopaths – can’t help being intellectually superior. But they’re ‘Frankenstein’, artificially gifted, clever ‘against nature’.”

Magueijo’s imagination also influences his discussion of Majorana’s mysterious disappearance from a Naples-bound boat. Rather than keep to known facts, Magueijo prefers to take suggestions from literary narratives, folk influences and so on. Yet in some ways suggestions are all we have; even the “major discovery in the deep waters near Catania” quoted in the opening of this review relates to neutrino experiments in the Mediterranean Sea and not to any new information about Majorana’s fate. As the author explicitly points out in his conclusion, “This book could not be more open-ended, which is why I had the drive to write it; I hate eternal truth. We don’t know what happened to Ettore, and we don’t know if the neutrino is Majorana. But who cares? As Einstein and Infeld once put it, science is a bad thriller, one in which we never get to know whodunit”. Certainly, it is a book that makes for unconventional reading.

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