A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
On the night of March 26, 1938, nuclear physicist Ettore Majorana boarded a ship, cash and passport in hand. He was never seen again. In A Brilliant Darkness, theoretical physicist João Magueijo tells the story of Majorana and his research group, the Via Panisperna Boys,” who discovered atomic fission in 1934. As Majorana, the most brilliant of the group, began to realize the implications of what they had found, he became increasingly unstable. Did he commit suicide that night in Palermo? Was he kidnapped? Did he stage his own death?
A Brilliant Darkness chronicles Majorana’s invaluable contributions to scienceincluding his major discovery, the Majorana neutrinowhile revealing the truth behind his fascinating and tragic life.
comment, one way or the other, ever emerged from Fermi. He only regretted he’d missed the fission of uranium while in Rome: It humiliated him to his grave; but he was insensitive to more moral pains. He died of stomach cancer, possibly from radiation exposure, at the age of fifty-three. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so judgmental—those were hard times. And it’s true that the Allied nuclear project was spurred on by the knowledge that the enemy was active in the field. In 1940, Heisenberg
device attached to a quantum system (e.g., the radioactive decay of a single nucleus of an isotope). Quantum systems can be in superpositions of opposites: If I say that a nucleus has 20 percent probability of having decayed and an 80 percent probability of not having decayed, I mean that until I make an observation (ruled by those odds), the nucleus is in a ghostly superposition of the two. Therefore so is the cat, whose fate is correlated with the quantum process: She collapses into one
slowly, distances shrink, objects become “heavier” and more difficult to accelerate. A relativistic quantum theory that unified quantum mechanics and special relativity was lacking. No one knew how to describe quantum phenomena for particles moving close to or at the speed of light. Dirac set about filling the gap. The result was Dirac’s theory of the electron. And most infamously, the antiworld. Dirac’s discovery was made purely via mathematics, and at first it didn’t conform to experiment
communications, a cushy job in Rome. The family moved there in 1928. Figure 1.1: A very abridged genealogical tree of the Majorana family, covering three generations. The name of the out-of-family spouse is indicated wherever the branches are followed. If Dorina’s ancestors bestowed vast wealth upon the family, prominence and political influence came from Ettore’s paternal branch. The family jokes that their unusual name derives from Iulius Valerius Maiorianus, ordained emperor of the Western
are “bi-timal”: Their time flow, or their particle-antiparticlecontrol, goes both ways down their lines. Thus the two beta-decay diagrams can be linked via a virtual neutrino without a clash. The neutrinoless double beta decay is the hallmark of the Majorana neutrino. We can now see why neutrinoless double beta decay is possible should the neutrino be Majorana. Because the time flow, or the particle-antiparticle control, goes both ways down their lines, we can link the neutrino lines belonging