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A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age Hardcover – November 24, 2009


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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* No twentieth-century scientist deserved the Nobel Prize more than the Italian physicist Ettore Majorana. So argues Magueijo, who nonetheless admits that the Nobel selection committee faced an insuperable obstacle in considering Majorana: only the living are eligible for the prize, and after March 26, 1938, no one knew whether Majorana was alive or dead. For on that date, one day after he had inexplicably handed a cache of his papers to a baffled student, the gifted theorist boarded a ship in Palermo—and vanished! Unraveling the mysteries left in the wake of that departing ship, Magueijo delves deep into the subatomic theories developed by the enigmatic genius, theories so advanced that they dazzled Majorana’s mentor, Enrico Fermi, and have continued to mesmerize scientists ever since. For the benefit of nonspecialists, Magueijo explains these 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. --Bryce Christensen
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1St Edition edition (November 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465009034
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465009039
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #967,547 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By G. Poirier on December 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The main focus of this fascinating book is the life of brilliant Italian theoretical physicist Ettore Majorana who mysteriously disappeared in 1938 at the young age of 31. Since his body has never been found, many theories abound as to what could have happened to him, e.g., suicide, joining a monastery, moving incognito to another country/continent, being abducted by a foreign power, etc. Majorana's life and disappearance have also been the subjects of various films and books. The author, a theoretical physicist, has done an excellent job of bringing everything together in a widely accessible way. He has travelled abroad to meet key people and see important places to gain as much insight as possible into the life and legend of his brilliant subject, thus making this book part memoir. Intermixed with the biographical/historical information are absorbing chapters focussing on Majorana's science: atomic and nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and particle physics. Although these chapters are a bit technical, they have been written in such a clear and friendly prose that any interested general reader can easily understand them. The many diagrams that these chapters contain are very effective in illustrating the ideas presented in the text.

The writing style is friendly, chatty, very articulate, authoritative, often tongue-in-cheek, and quite engaging; it can also be somewhat irreverent at times and, very occasionally, even a bit crude by science/biography book standards - thus, on the whole, making this a very original and entertaining book. Although anyone could enjoy and learn a great deal from this captivating book, it is most likely the avid science buffs who will appreciate it the most.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By D. Cassell on January 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joao Magueijo is the type of author you'll either love or hate. Basically as a reader you need to know what you're getting yourself into. Joao will curse, go into vivid detail about something grotesque, and quiet simply be as crude as possible at times. Thus this book is surely for adult readers. Having read both of Joao Magueijo's books, I can't honestly say he is a particularly good writer, and as hinted at above, the crudeness can be a put off. But nevertheless, I couldn't put either of his books down once I started reading them. It's perhaps because Joao will say the things others dare not say.

Overall in A Brilliant Darkness, Joao Magueijo takes you on a journey retracing the steps of Ettore Majorana, from his birth place to his last known whereabouts. At the same time, he introduces Ettore's ideas and theories, which mostly deal with neutrinos, and can get a bit technical, but for the most part won't be a problem for the avid popular science reader. What makes the book interesting is that the author shows the interrelation between the ideas Ettore was working on, Ettore's psyche and of those around him, and that of the world events taking place. Exactly how a biography should be written, as all these factors went into creating the mysterious person Ettore Majorana. The book also had a particularly strong ending, which I won't ruin for the reader. Again, overall, I can't say the book was overly well written or the best biography I've ever read, but as an avid popular science reader, I also couldn't put it down either & would gladly buy another one of his books.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Marco Costanzi on September 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is NOT the biography of Ettore Majorana, but the biography of the two misteries sorrounding the life and work of the famed '30s nuclear Physicist: his sudden disappearance (and the turmoil that surrounded and surrounds it), and the impact of his theories on nuclear Physics past, present and future.
The author is a young scientist and professor of Physics and he must be also a highly spirited young guy. Maybe he scattered his book with comments that, I think, are highly annoying and wrong, but he wrote with passion and expertise. When Majorana disappeared, he left a vacuum in the world (and maybe that's namely what Majorana wanted), relatives, friends, colleagues, students, institutions included, both in his private life and his scientific work, that everybody tried to fill in, sometimes perfunctorily, sometimes compulsively, sometimes with two lines written by a bored Police officer, sometimes with years of obsessive research.
The author explores the theories developed in 70 years to fill the gap: why Majorana disappeared with just some ambiguous letters behind? Did he simply killed himself out of loneliness and isolation, disgusted by a world mindlessly running toward Hiroshima and Nagasaky and by the corrupted Italian Academia? Or did he looked for shelter where nobody could find him, in search of peace of equilibrium? Were his theories just the vagaries of a genius detached from the real world or did he see further than anybody else, the greatest Physiscist of the 20th cen included? The author states simply that the case is still open. A personal note: Majorana had only 5 students, 4 girls and a boy. That boy, turned Professor Sebastiano Sciuti, in 1987, examined me in Nuclear Physics. I'm only 2 years older than the outhor. Majorana is still with us.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Nicodemus on April 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The lives of nuclear physicists aren't the stuff of casual entertainment to most readers. All the more credit to Joao Magueijo for having written a highly entertaining biography that reads more like a novel thanks to his engaging wit. Left wanting more, I sought out The Strangest Man which by contrast is the sort of sober, exhaustive biography one might expect regarding a figure like Paul Dirac about whom so much more is documented than Ettore Majorana whose youthful disappearance left far less to go on and by turn far more to Magueijo's imagination. That the authors of both are themselves nuclear physicists with a talent for demystifying their subjects' technicality lends an air of authority to their attempts to explain what most of us can barely begin to grasp. Nevertheless, I would be challenged to relate much more than the nothing I knew about nuclear physics before I picked up these two books and maybe that's just as well as it maintains my fascination about these two barely fathomable characters and the genius they had in common. Had I read The Strangest Man first I'm not convinced that I would have gravitated to A Brilliant Darkness so my recommendation would be to begin with the latter. Regardless your interest in the subject I think you'll enjoy the author's sense of humor and editorial skill in keeping his narrative fresh and fast paced.
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