A brilliant but troubled young physicist, in the same league of achievement as Einstein, boards a ship in Palermo on a spring night in 1938, passport and cash in hand. He is soon assumed dead, although a few witnesses will later swear that they have seen him alive.
Thus the Imperial College theoretician Joao Magueijo begins his quirky biography of the Italian theoretician Ettore Majorana, whose portrait is painted here with Gauguinian boldness. If you have not heard of Majorana, you are in good company, as he is familiar mainly to particle physicists, although they first recognised his most important contributions only a quarter of a century after his disappearance. A popular account of his life is long overdue.
Magueijo is just the person to write it, for he too is something of an outsider, as he demonstrated when he controversially argued in his first book that the speed of light has changed with time. He had harsh words for the establishment figures who, in his view, are allergic to risk and who delight in stifling the unorthodox; the funding of physics, he argues, is run incompetently by ex-scientists who have turned into parasitic "old farts". (Some of his critical colleagues may now agree that he was ahead of his time.)
This is no ordinary, cradle-to-grave biography. Magueijo, always ready with an uncompromising opinion, has tracked down and interviewed several members of Majorana's Sicilian family, who give valuable insights into the prodigy's early life and fragile psychological state. The highlights of Majorana's peculiarly unfulfilled research career took place in Rome, where he worked with Enrico Fermi and his "boys", and in Leipzig, where he again sparkled under Werner Heisenberg, the discoverer of quantum mechanics.
Magueijo has uncovered quite a bit of new material but, as he notes, there remain many holes in the story. The result is an idiosyncratic account of Majorana's life, full of insights and with quite a bit of psychological speculation, as well as high-kicking commentary on the early development of quantum physics.
Magueijo makes clear his admiration for his subject by referring to him throughout by his first name. Although this is touching, it sometimes undermines the author's credibility as a fair-minded critic, which he often needs, for example when he tries to give a sympathetic account of how Majorana came, in May 1933, to send his colleague Emilio Segre an appallingly anti-Semitic letter.
Majorana undoubtedly did some excellent work, notably in quantum field theory and in understanding the force holding together the atomic nuclei, although both contributions were also made independently by others. He is now best remembered for one especially original piece of work, on the fundamental particle known as the neutrino, which he argued is indistinguishable from its anti-particle. Magueijo explains the underlying physics well and almost persuades us that Majorana can be excused for not bothering to publish his work. In Mageuijo's characteristically salty turn of phrase, when it came to the conventions of the science community, Majorana "couldn't give a shit".
Like his biographer, Majorana was openly critical of physics "royalty". Most people would have thought that he was extremely fortunate to have worked with the much-admired Fermi, one of the very few physicists in the past century to have excelled at both theoretical and experimental physics. But the two did not get on well and Majorana does not seem to have benefited from being under the aegis of this hugely admired physicist and research supervisor (Magueijo suggests that this was because Fermi was "intellectually a bit limited"). Nor did Majorana have a high opinion of Niels Bohr, whom he described in March 1933 as "a bit aged and considerably senile", adding with a sneer that "he still passes for a deep thinker".
For me, such comments deserve more scrutiny than they are given here, as they are quite contrary to the consensus among leading quantum theorists, including the hypercritical Wolfgang Pauli and Lev Landau. Likewise, it is worth pondering why rather few of the great quantum theorists outside Italy appear to have held Majorana in highest regard and why his name is so rarely mentioned in correspondence among his peers. Could it be that Majorana was an immature, psychologically disturbed misfit whose achievements simply did not do justice to his talent?
Whatever the truth about this mysterious man, Magueijo has carried out a valuable service in drawing attention to him. This individual book is mainly addressed to a non-specialist audience and so, quite reasonably, is not exhaustively referenced. I hope, however, that one day someone will research the missing details and give an even more complete picture. Until then, the assessment of Majorana that I shall accept is Fermi's: he "had greater gifts than anyone else in the world; unfortunately he lacked one quality that other men generally have: plain common sense".
Despite Magueijo's brave attempt to persuade us otherwise, I suspect that lack of judgment explains the gap between Majorana's talent and his achievement.
A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age
By Joao Magueijo. Basic Books, 304pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780465009039 Published 7 January 2010