A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age

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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 science—including his major discovery, the Majorana neutrino—while revealing the truth behind his fascinating and tragic life.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Publishers Weekly
“Part mystery, part biography and part nuclear physics primer…. Magueijo’s examination of Majorana…reveals a troubled, confounding man whose disappearance has inspired as many conspiracy theories as the Roswell incident.”

Library Journal
“[Magueijo] could have easily fallen into the jargon of his profession to describe the work of a fellow scientist, but he does not. His clear explanation of Majorana’s insight into nuclear physics, often accompanied with drawings and illustrations, will appeal to a wide audience.”

A Brilliant Darkness excavates Majorana’s troubled life, explaining his contributions to physics and uncovering new clues about his peculiar disappearance more than 70 years ago.”

Booklist (starred review)
“Magueijo explains [Majorana’s] scientific theories in mercifully simple terms. But what simple terms can illuminate a tortured and unstable personality, vulnerable to bouts of depression and prone to antisocial reclusiveness? The complexities of that personality resist assimilation into any of the standard explanations – suicide, kidnapping, flight, monastic retreat – for Majorana’s disappearance. But astounded readers will thank Magueijo for his daring venture into the science and the psyche of a perplexing figure.”

New Scientist
A Brilliant Darkness interweaves explanations of Majorana’s physics with his life story, and the result is an enlightening and strangely gripping journey into the heart of science and the minds of scientists.… This tale is about the journey, not the destination, and a trip through Majorana’s life is a journey well worth taking.”

“The latest thesis on the disappearance of physicist Ettore Majorana…reminds us of the Nobel-prizewinning quality of the discoveries he made during his brief career.”

Buzz Blog
“[A] wonderful telling of the entire Majorana story…. Like a true scientist, Magueijo seems unsatisfied to hear from others what they believed happened to Majorana, so he goes in search of the truth himself…. Magueijo makes the story sound more like a gossip column than a history. Who says physicists can’t stir up human emotion?”

A Brilliant Darkness is not a traditional biography of Ettore Majorana…. The book offers good descriptions of basic nuclear physics, the positron, and Feynman diagrams. It also covers the physics of neutrinos in some depth.”

Publishers Weekly
Part mystery, part biography and part nuclear physics primer, Magueijo’s book takes readers through an investigation into the melodramatic life, work and bizarre disappearance of a troubled young physicist after he boarded a ship in Palermo on the cusp of WWII. A “twisted prodigy raised by domineering parents, Majorana (born 1906) became one of the Via Panisperna boys, a group of raucous young physicists nurtured by fission pioneer Enrico Fermi. Majorana discovered a subatomic particle called the Majorana neutrino, but refused to publish any papers and so never got credit for his discovery. Magueijo’s examination of Majorana, aided by interviews with his living relatives, reveals a troubled, confounding man whose disappearance has inspired as many conspiracy theories as the Roswell incident. Whether Majorana committed suicide, joined a monastery, or ran off to Argentina, whether he deserves a Nobel Prize (if he’s still alive somewhere) as Magueijo, a theoretical physicist at Imperial College, London (Faster than the Speed of Light), insists, it’s clear his life and approach to his work were both singular and outrageously strange. Photos, illus. (Dec.)
Library Journal
Ahh, to be a fly on select walls of European physics research during those heady years of the early 20th century. Ettore Majorana (1906–38) was part of that elite group of men and women tackling theoretical physics, which was more math than lab science. Theoretical physicist Magueijo (Faster Than the Speed of Light) paints the life of a twenty something math prodigy who joined Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segre, and the other "Via Panisperna Boys" who in 1934 discovered nuclear fusion. The author could have easily fallen into the jargon of his profession to describe the work of a fellow scientist, but he does not. His clear explanation of Majorana's insight into nuclear physics, often accompanied with drawings and illustrations, will appeal to a wide audience. VERDICT Like most biographers, Magueijo treats Majorana's life and mysterious disappearance at the age of 31 in 1938 with respect mixed with admiration. The result will affect both science history buffs familiar with the man and his work and general readers who may never have heard of him. Recommended for public and academic collections.—Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia\
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465009039
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/24/2009
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Joao Magueijo has taught at Cambridge University, Princeton University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He currently holds a Chair in Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London. Author of Faster Than the Speed of Light, he lives in London.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    Magueijo is a physics professor of Porteugese extraction. His English is excellent although I would have appreciated euphemisms in several places. Magueijo is familiar with the autistic personality and applies the term to Paul Dirac. But incredibly, he never calls Majorana autistic. He mentions that a nephew of Majorana thought that he was homosexual. But gays don't withdraw to their rooms for four years and then disappear entirely. Majorana was probably both autistic and latent homosexual. After the four years of seclusion, Majorana decided to give life as a physics professor a try. The fact that four of his five students were charming coeds would have contributed to his decision to disappear. The year was 1938 and he was 31 years old. My theory is that he sailed from Napels to Sicily by ship using a round-trip ticket. But he had an impostor use the return ticket. Majorana then disguised himself and went on to North Africa. From there he proceeded to South America where he may have spent time in a monastery. The book includes the following vignette that deserves to be pointed out. Author Magueijo once had dinner with a group of physicists that included Bruno Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo said that he had made a colossal blunder when he defected to the Soviet Union. Apparently he kept this opinion a secret from his colleagues in Russia. His obituary in Physics Today was written by Russians and makes no hint of his bitterness. Another precious vignette: Future Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi developed a theory of beta decay in terms of the weak force. He submitted it to the English journal Nature which rejected it! It was judged to be "too remote from physical reality." It's a shame that Abraham Pais didn't live long enough to read this fascinating biography.

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