Joao Magueijo has a new book out about Ettore Majorana, entitled A Brilliant Darkness. It’s a lot of fun to read, and could be described as an example of Gonzo history of science. While it contains a lot of factual information, much of which I was unaware of, it’s probably best to think of it like the works of Hunter S. Thompson. Not a good place to go for authoritatively accurate information about, e.g., Las Vegas or the 1972 US Presidential campaign, but a highly personal investigation that manages to get to the heart of the matter, finding emotional if not literal truth.
For some examples, here’s Magueijo on Majorana’s upbringing:
Jokes and pranks aside, one should not get the impression that Ettore’s youth was a happy one. It was dire. Between the priests and his parents, his basic humanity was destroyed. 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 “Frankensteins,” artificially gifted, clever “against nature.” And like the literary monstor, behind the bestial genius lies a very different nature: tender in a way that can never be fully realized; longing for love, knowing full well that it will always be denied; a furnace of kind emotions that the ogre exterior will always screen.
and here’s his account of his own trip on the ferry where Majorana presumably killed himself in 1938 at the age of 31:
Back on deck, I realize what a gloomy figure I must cut: pensive and stark, staring at the sea. Maybe the insomniac brigade is worried I might be contemplating suicide. A girl comes out to smoke and waits to be chatted up. I move to the rear. What a sad bastard I must look, refusing to play the game of life, shouting and fucking, throwing up against the wind. I watch the wake for a long time, the cigarette butts flying past me into the night, like fireflies from Mars. In our world of the “normal”, anyone who thinks is likely to appear suicidal. And yet, suicide or not, we will all be there one day, not just Ettore. We are all the same, only in different seasons.
Majorana was born in 1906 in Sicily, went to Rome for his studies. His career as a physicist basically spanned just the years 1928-1933, much of which was spent working in Fermi’s famous group in Rome. For Magueijo, Fermi is one of the villains of the piece, with Majorana a genius much his superior. Unlike the rest of the group, Majorana wasn’t interested in experimental work, nor much interested in publishing his ideas, about which Magueijo claims:
That’s how he never got credit for Heisenberg’s theory of nuclear forces and the neutron, the Weisskopf-Pauli second quantization of the complex scalar field, or the parity-violating properties of the neutrino, which earned Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang the Nobel Prize some thirty years later. They could all have been named after Majorana. But because he never published his work, only the Majorana neutrino — his inseparable soul mate — carries Ettore’s name today.
In 1933 Majorana traveled to Leipzig to work with Heisenberg, then to Copenhagen to work with Bohr. When he returned to Rome, some combination of physical and mental health problems led him to become a recluse for several years. He emerged from this state in 1937 to take up a professorship in Naples, but a few months later disappeared after embarking on a ferry taking him from Palermo back to Naples.
Majorana’s most important scientific work appeared in a 1932 Nuovo Cimento paper motivated by the desire to find a replacement for the Dirac equation that would solve the problem of its negative energy states (a problem which disappeared in 1932 with the discovery of the positron). In this paper, Majorana investigated for the first time infinite dimensional representations of the Lorentz group, ones whose role in physics, if any, remains mysterious. As part of this work, he discovered the possibility of a real representation of the Clifford algebra and thus a version of the Dirac equation in which a particle is its own anti-particle. Whether this possibility is realized in the case of neutrinos is one of the big open questions of the subject. We know that there must be neutrino mass terms, but we don’t know if they’re of Majorana or Dirac form.
[Note added: There are actually two papers here, both of which appear to have been completed in 1932, but the second one was only published in 1937, when Majorana was applying for the professorship in Naples. The 1932 paper is concerned with his infinite component wave equation. It’s only in the 1937 paper that the real representation of the gamma-matrices and what is now known as the “Majorana neutrino” make their appearance.]
Magueijo does a good job of describing this important physics at a popular level. He also gives a lot of space to the various myths that have grown up around the story of Majorana’s disappearance. There’s a whole subculture out there devoted to them. He wisely decides not to sign on to any of these or create his own, concluding:
And as with the neutrino, Ettore’s story is also elusive. Even if we found out for sure what actually happened to him, we’d never know why he did it — which is far more important. This absence of a final truth shouldn’t sadden us: At leas we don’t harbor delusions of omniscience. When I got on that plane to Sicily, I promised myself only this: I won’t raise my leg and urinate over my little territory in Ettoreland; I won’t invent a solution that is not needed.