A Brilliant Darkness

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.

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11 Responses to A Brilliant Darkness

  1. D R Lunsford says:

    Now THIS sounds like a good read!!

    BTW it’s not quite right to say the problem of the negative energy states was alleviated by the appearance of the positron. Dirac for example kept working at “getting an equation” (as he would say it) with purely positive energy right up into the 70s. See the papers “A Positive Energy Relativistic Wave Equation” from about 1972 or so.

    ok here http://www.jstor.org/pss/77762

    a fascinating work.


  2. einblicke says:

    I was greatly inspired by the works of infinite dimensional representation of the Lorentz group by Majorana, since the mathematical theorm says that the finite dimensional representation of a non-compact group (like the Lorentz group) is non-unitary, which violate the spirite of quantum mechanics, and I once thought that it may be the key obstacle for our reconciling the quantum mechanics and the relativity. However, an infinite dimensional representation of the Lorentz group is unitary, which I once thought as a possible path, but little progress.

    Today’s quantum fields theory of reconciling the quantum mechanics and the relativity is going another way in which the particle number but rather the inner product can be negetive and be interpreted as anti-particle.

  3. mike says:

    Will the LHC be able to tell the difference between neutrinos of the Majorana and Dirac form? Will will we be able to get an accurate mass reading from one of the detectors?

  4. Yatima says:

    While we are on the memory lane:


    “Ginzburg was a pioneering theoretical physicist who often deprecated his own abilities in mathematics, yet made seminal contributions in a number of areas of physics, including quantum theory, astrophysics and radio-astronomy. Following years of nominations, he won the 2003 Nobel Physics Prize for developing the theory behind superconductors; materials which allow electricity to pass without resistance at very low temperatures. His work had been done with his fellow physicist Lev Landau, but he had died in 1968 and awards were not given posthumously. He shared the prize with the British-American Anthony Leggett and the Russian-born US scientist Alexei Abrikosov.”

  5. Peter Woit says:


    The LHC is not useful for studying neutrino masses, they’re quite small and you don’t need LHC energy to produce neutrinos. There’s a wide range of non-collider experiments going on to study neutrinos, including some that in principle can distinguish between Marjorana and Dirac.

  6. Stephen says:

    I strongly recommend this classic book on Majorana:
    “The Moro Affair and The Mystery of Majorana” by Leonardo Sciascia.

    From the book, among other things, apart from the suicide hypothesis, there appear to be some other explanations: for instance the fact that he may have started secretly religious life, or that he may have escaped to argentina. I like to think that the alternative hypothesis to the suicide are true.

  7. I enjoyed Jao’s first book, Faster Than the Speed of Light. I suspect a lot of reviewers missed the fact that he is a very good science writer because they doubted his premise. He has a lovely, clear, but chatty style…

  8. Kay zum Felde says:

    I find it interesting how Magueijo conclude, that Majorana must become a superior physicist because of his hard youth.

    I myself am a physicist too and suffer from a schizoaffective psychosis and when the illness is on its top, I’ve often good ideas as pictures in my mind, that don’t work, because in such a state my mathematical mind does not work correctly. Afterwards I usually cannot remember my ideas. This is not that problematic since as I implied they wouldn’t work correctly. What I wanted to say too, I can imagine the lonelyness of Majorana, especially the longing for love, even it cannot delivered.

    Best Kay

  9. jun says:

    I too liked Joao’s first book. I remember getting pretty excited about VSL. I was a bit surprised when a well-known string theorist disparaged his ideas.

  10. tomate says:

    The short novel by Leonardo Sciascia that Stephen cites is a great pieace of italian literature devoted to alternative inquire into the subject, so I wouldn’t call it “subculture”. The main point of Sciascia (maybe a bit too fictionary, but deep and accurate) is that Majorana could have disappeard to subtract himself from the hands of the fascist regime, since he problably foresaw the strategic power of the nucleus that was not yet totally unravelled by Fermi himself. In fact Mussolini had explicit orders to find him alive, when Fermi brought his experimental knowledge in the US, being his wife jew. History could have taken a quite different turn…

  11. tomate says:

    …and I point out this new article that appeared in the arXiv, for the italian readers:


    The author is credited for being the most prominent expert about Majorana’s legacy; the materials Leonardo Sciascia worked on come from himself. It would be interesting to know if Magueijo got in contact with this guy for his own work…

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