The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
Basic Books (November 24, 2009)
The Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana disappeared in 1938 at the age of 31. The reason for his disappearance and what happened afterwards were never clarified. His fate has inspired many books and movies, most of Italian origin, of which I haven't read or seen a single one. Thus, Magueijo's book was the first time I heard about the various theories of Majorana's disappearance, the leading ones being suicide, joining a monastery, or starting a new life in Argentina, due to depression, insanity, homosexuality or moral trouble with a research direction that Majorana might have understood earlier than everyone else would lead to the atomic bomb.
"... the [atomic] bomb, so much like a star in the sky, but so close to us that its brilliance amounted to darkness."
The more obscure theories feature various conspiracies, special forces, and/or aliens.
João's book, instead of listing all these theories, is a report on his following up on Majorana's fate. He has interviewed friends and relatives, seen the movies, read the books, visited the places. Woven together with his travels are explanations of the physics Majorana has been working on and the historical circumstances. The physics is explained on a level understandable without previous knowledge and covers atomic physics, β-decay, parity, chirality, neutrino-oscillation, (neutrinoless) double β-decay and the experiments behind all this. The reader is confronted with the difficulties scientific research had to cope with under Mussolini and Hitler, and gets to meet Majorana's contemporaries, among others Fermi, Heisenberg, Dirac and some radioactively contaminated fish.
João does not put forward his own theory or presents a solution to the mystery. Instead, he uses Majorana's life and unknown fate to get across some science and touch upon questions like the role of scientists in our societies, the clash between pragmatism and idealism, the ignorance of academics, the balance between competition and collaboration, and the influence of personal life on ones research. There's a lot in that book to make you think and João doesn't even attempt to think in your place.
The book is well written in a light-hearted style despite the dark topic, and the main flavor is sarcasm. João, let me remind you, is the one who famously suggested in his first book that the "M" in M-theory stands for "masturbation." In his book on Majorana, string theory makes an appearance as as an example for "the fad of postulating thousands of unnecessary particles," and João doesn't hesitate to speak his mind on all and everybody: Fermi, so João writes, "did lack imagination," "when [Dirac] spoke the outcome was... logically crafted insanity," and Cambridge (UK) is "that ivory tower of lunacy." The book is also interspersed with paragraphs that seem to have gotten there by random association, my favorite one is:
"Saying that we live in an odd world is often an understatement. I once had a random conversation on a Toronto street that derailed into the most sublime insanity. After a few minutes of pleasant platitudes, my casual acquaintance, out of the blue, revealed that "they" had implanted radioactive isotopes in his testicles. Being high-minded, he refrained from ejaculating, lest he might contaminate the entire universe."and later he describes meeting an old friend at a book fair in Buenos Aires, an event that doesn't have any apparent relevance to Majorana's story. There's more side-tracks of this sort. One might say the book is also a book about João. If you decide to read it, you'll either love or hate it, but either way you'll very likely finish reading it.