April 19, 2012

Majorana Returns! The True Story of the Solving of a Scientific Mystery, 75 Years in the Making

Ettore Majorana

By Niccolò Graffio

Like many people, I enjoy a good mystery.  I’ve read books by Agatha Christie, watched just about every episode of Columbo ever made and even played the game Clue a number of times in my life.  To me, though, the greatest mysteries are those that lie within the realm of the sciences.

Who hasn’t stared at a starry night and wondered how it all got here?  Who hasn’t pondered with awe the unseen forces that shape and move the world around us?

Even as I write these words there are people out there whose job it is to study our world, our universe, and try to make sense of it all.  I am referring, of course, to scientists.  Aside from the occasional scientific celebrity like cosmologist Stephen Hawking or the late wildlife expert Steve Irwin, most are unaware of the activities of these people.  Why should they be otherwise?  After all, they’re too busy trying to keep up with the Kardashians and other really important stuff!

Growing up I was fascinated by two scientific disciplines in particular: Archaeology and Geology.  It was my interest in the former that led me to my studies of the history of our people – the Southern Italians.  My odyssey of learning led me to discover that a number of our people made a mark for themselves in the various scientific disciplines.  This is something I wouldn’t have learned otherwise in the public fool system!

One figure in particular has always stood out for me, not just because he was a Southerner, but also because his life was as mysterious as the subatomic particles he studied.  I am referring, of course, to the legendary Sicilian physicist Ettore Majorana (1906-38).  Readers of this blog know that I have written of him in the past.  To call him a genius would be an understatement.  Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi, a genius in his own right, once compared Majorana’s intellect to that of other giants like Galileo and Isaac Newton!  

His whole life was something of a mystery.  His hopes, dreams and ambitions he pretty much kept to himself.  His departure from this world undoubtedly remains the greatest mystery surrounding him.  All that is known is he boarded a passenger ship from Palermo bound for Naples and was never seen or heard from again.  His ultimate fate remains unknown.

Nevertheless, in his tragically short time on this earth he made several profound contributions to the field of physics.  Perhaps his greatest was his prediction concerning the existence of a particle now known as a Majorana fermion.  As the name implies, this type of particle was named in honor of Ettore Majorana and Enrico Fermi, two pioneers in the field.

Before I continue further a brief explanation is in order.  Scientists understand our universe is made up of almost infinitely small particles.  All the particles in the universe fall together under one of two broad categories – fermions and bosons.  Every kind of elementary particle in the universe is either a fermion or a boson.  

Without getting too technical (and turning this into a Physics lecture), a boson is basically a particle that  has zero or integral ‘spin’ and obeys statistical rules (Bose-Einstein statistics) permitting any number of identical particles to occupy the same quantum state.  Examples of bosons include photons (particles of light), gluons and the still-elusive Higgs boson, the so-called ‘God Particle’.  Fermions are basically any particles which are not bosons.  Examples of fermions include electrons, protons and neutrons.  Confused yet?  Wait, it gets better, but I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.

Physicists have long believed all particles have an associated antiparticle with the same mass but an opposite electrical charge.  The antiparticle of an electron (a negatively charged particle), for example, is positively charged and is called a positron.  If a particle and its corresponding antiparticle come into contact with one another they annihilate one other, producing energy.  The electron, for example, reacts with a positron to produce two gamma rays.

Certain particles (all of them bosons) can be their own antiparticles.  Photons, for example, under the right circumstances can annihilate with themselves.  To date, of all the fermions that have been included in the Standard Model of Particle Physics, none have ever been described as a Majorana fermion.  What is a Majorana fermion, you say?  It is a hypothetical fermion that acts as its own antiparticle.

The existence of this particle was first hypothesized by, you guessed it, Ettore Majorana!  He published a paper on this way back in 1937.  The majority of physicists doubted it existed, though some quietly speculated Majorana was on to something. Sadly, the technology to investigate this claim was non-existent at the time Majorana was alive.  Physicists use devices called particle accelerators to delve into the mysteries of the subatomic universe.  These devices require enormous amounts of energy. 

Thanks to technological advances, within the past 10 years serious progress has been made into locating the most fundamental particles of creation.  Many are hopeful the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, will locate the Higgs boson, a particle believed to impart mass to other elementary particles such as quarks and electrons.

It is thus with great excitement that I read, only today in fact, that a team of physicists led by Leo Kouwenhoven at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have announced they have discovered actual evidence to establish the existence of Majorana’s hypothetical particles.  Their findings must be independently corroborated, but the scientists are confident of the results.  If this checks out it will be a major advancement in the field of particle physics.  Some researchers are already talking about possibly using this discovery to aid them in the eventual construction of quantum computers.  These are computers which, if ever built large scale, could perform computations that would dwarf those done by any digital computer used today.  

Just as importantly, though, it would cement the reputation of a great Southern Italian scientist who is little known here in America.  It would validate Enrico Fermi’s assessment of Majorana’s genius.  Sadly, he would never get the Nobel Prize in Physics he deserves (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously), but his name would be put among the other greats where it has always belonged!

Further reading:

April 17, 2012

A Brief Sketch: Onofrio Avellino

Madonna in Glory with Saints and Angels 
by Onofrio Avellino (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

Little is known about Onofrio Avellino's life. He was probably born in 1674 in Naples and as his surname suggests, his family may have originally hailed from Avellino, a small town nestled between the foothills of the Apennine Mountains in Campania. He first apprenticed under Luca Giordano in Naples, sometimes putting finishing touches on his master's work. In fact, Avellino was so adept at emulating his instructor the copies are often mistaken for the original. His older brother, Giulio Giacinto Avellino, was also a painter.

After Giordano's departure to Spain in 1692 Avellino trained with Francesco Solimena. Under his new teacher's guidance the young artist drifted away from the vibrant Giordanesque style of painting towards a more classical idiom. He painted a variety of subjects, though portraits were considered his forte. Examples of Avellino's early work can be found in the small coastal town of Vico Equense and the Church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples.

In 1710 he painted the Madonna in Glory with Saints and Angels on the ceiling of the nave of the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Carmine in Sorrento. The painting depicts Saint Simon receiving the Holy Scapular from the Virgin. A veritable who's who of Carmelite Saints and Angels have gathered in a celestial setting to witness the sacred rite. The painting is one of the artist's largest and considering Sorrento's immense popularity with tourists, and the church's prominent location in the famous Piazza Tasso, it’s quite possibly his most famous, if not finest extant piece. 
The Santuario della Madonna del Carmine, Sorrento
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Avellino settled in Rome sometime before 1720. Although his later work was influenced by Carlo Maratta (sometimes spelled Maratti)—whose late Baroque classicism became the predominant style of the Eternal City—he maintained regular contact with Solimena, often sending his former mentor sketches for consideration. Avellino executed commissions for both private and ecclesiastical patrons, which included paintings of Saint Alberto tending the sick for the church of Santa Maria de Montesanto and The glory of Saint Anna for the vault of San Francesco di Paola. Sadly, few of the artist's works survive.

In 1722 he completed a canvas depicting Santa Cecilia for the Palazzo Orsetti in Lucca. In 2009 the oil painting underwent much-needed restoration, almost returning the masterpiece to its original glory. It can be viewed in the entrance hall of the stately Tuscan palace.

Onofrio Avellino died in Rome on April 17, 1741.
The ceiling of the nave in the Sanctuary
Photo by New York Scugnizzo

April 15, 2012

Corrado Alvaro: An Introduction to His Life and Work

Corrado Alvaro
By Giovanni di Napoli

Not too long ago, while discussing with some friends the tenets of Tom Verso's article, Towards an American Terroni "Education Manifesto," one name came up repeatedly as a "must-read" candidate for any future curriculum specializing in Southern Italian historiography—Corrado Alvaro. Embarrassed that I've only read his Revolt in Aspromonte, I dusted off my copy and reread it. Subsequently, I made it a point to find other works by the author, but discovered that only two others—Man is Strong and The Long Night of Medea—were available in English. Luckily, I found the former at my local library and the later at a used bookstore. Needless to say, now I understand why my friends were so adamant about his inclusion.

Corrado Alvaro was a prominent literary figure during the Fascist era whose literature often explored the social and political crises of the twentieth century. Alvaro's collection of short stories, especially his Gente d'Aspromonte (People in Aspromonte), has been acknowledged as a precursor to the Italian neorealismo or neorealist movement prevalent after World War II. He is also credited with important contributions to the development of narrativa meridionale, a literary tradition focusing on the narrative of Southern Italy.
Revolt in Aspromonte
Gente d'Aspromonte, considered by many to be Alvaro's finest work, delves into the difficult, often harsh realities of post-unification Southern Italian rural life. Set in the author's native Calabria, the story revolves around the peasant Argiro and the hopeless plight of his family. In short, it is an exploration into the poverty, exploitation and injustice endemic to the Italian south. 

Written almost 50 years after Giovanni Verga's "Liberty"—a short story about a violent peasant revolt against the "hats" (1)—Alvaro shows little had changed for the southern populace under Italian rule and the promises of "liberty" remained unfulfilled:
"The liberation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies superseded an order of things that had been established for centuries, and the redistribution of feudal property only increased some already swollen private fortunes." (2)
Translated into English in 1962 by Frances Frenaye for New Directions Paperback, the title was inexplicably changed to Revolt in Aspromonte. "Swift, powerful and compassionate," wrote Helene Cantarella for the New York Times Book Review. "Alvaro's novella tells more in its brief 120 pages about the reasons behind the so-called 'Southern problem' and 'banditism' than many a full-size tome." (3) Despite some glowing reviews and the author's prominence in Italy, Alvaro remained largely neglected in the United States. 

Alvaro's first introduction to an American audience, however, was in 1948 with the publication of his Man Is Strong (L'uomo e forte, 1938) by Alfred A. Knopf. Inspired by a trip to the U.S.S.R. in 1934, the book is a scathing critique of totalitarianism and its use of widespread fear and paranoia to control the masses. It was praised for its analysis of man's alienation in the modern world.

Title page of Alvaro's 
dystopian novel, Man is Strong
Originally titled "Fear Over The World," Fascist censors insisted that it be changed. They also demanded the author write a forward explaining that the story takes place in Russia. I thought this precaution was unnecessary; it was obvious while reading it that he was writing about the Soviet Union. If anything, Italy was lumped in with the West, which Alvaro described as "worn and weary and effete." 

Curiously, L'uomo e forte still won the Accademia d'Italia Prize for literature in 1940. The Royal Academy of Italy was founded in 1926 by the Fascist government to promote exceptional scientific, artistic and literary exploits.

Foreshadowing Orwell’s 1984, one of the more chilling passages was the dialogue between Nicholas Dirck, the book's main protagonist, and a government investigator:
"The new man is not yet born. We must destroy everything private, personal, intimate; there lies the cause of all the evils with which humanity is afflicted today. To have a secret is a crime!" (4)
A secret could be anything from owning a simple pocket watch or forbidden phonograph records or, in the case of Dirck's love interest, Barbara, parents who were enemies of the state. The investigator continued:
"Every serious crime committed by the human race in the last few centuries can be traced to this personal feeling, this sense of individuality. All this must be destroyed from the ground up. Ruthlessly uprooted and obliterated." (5)   
In many ways the book is still relevant today. Unfortunately, the invasion of privacy and the incursions on freedom of speech now seem to be as popular among  "democratic" governments as it is with authoritarian ones. The same can be said of cultural leveling, the drive to dampen individuality and make us all the same.

Also an accomplished playwright, Alvaro's La lunga notte di Medea (The Long Night of Medea, 1949) is a fascinating take on the ancient Greek myth. Originally written for production at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan the play has since been performed internationally by several theater companies. It was translated into English in 1966 by E. Fisher Friedman and published as part of the anthology, Plays For a New Theater: Playbook 2 by New Directions Paperback. 

Friedman's interpretation, however, was during the height of the civil rights movement so he changed Medea, a Colchian princess and sorceress, into a black woman to suit his own political motives. According to Friedman, "The idea of having Medea played by a Negro actress is mine, not his. And yet the conception is implicit in his version of the myth." (6) 

Undoubtedly, Alvaro would have agreed his corpus spoke for impoverished and alienated people everywhere, nevertheless, what is explicit in his writing was his focus on the marginalization of the Southern Italian people. Friedman's introduction should have addressed the ignominy of Italy's Southern Question and the distinct forms of discrimination Italian Americans have to contend with in the United States. If the alienation and hardships described by Friedman doesn't apply to Italian immigrants and displaced workers across Italy, I don't know what does.

Plays For a New Theater: Playbook 2
Corrado Alvaro was born on April 15th, 1895 in San Luca, a small town in the province of Reggio Calabria. The oldest of six children, his parents, Antonio and Antonia (née Giampaolo), were modest landholders. His father served as the village scribe and taught the local peasants how to read and write. Alvaro was sent to school in Catanzaro, where he published his first work, Polsi nell'arte, nella leggenda, nella storia (1912), a monograph about the Feast of the Madonna di Polsi. Wishing a better life for his son, Antonio enrolled Corrado into the Collegio Mondragone, a Jesuit seminary near Rome. Uncomfortable in the stifling environment, Alvaro performed poorly and was eventually expelled. He transferred to another school in Umbria.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Alvaro enlisted into the infantry and served as an officer. In 1915 he was wounded in both arms, cutting his military career short. He was awarded the Medaglia d'Argento al Valore Militare or Silver Medal of Military Valor. After his recovery, he resumed his studies in literature and philosophy at the Accademia Scientifico-Letteraria of Milan. 

Alvaro began his career as a journalist and critic writing for various periodicals, including the Corriere della SeraIl Mondo and La Stampa. On April 8th, 1918, he married Laura Babini in Bologna and a year later their son Massimo was born. They moved to Rome in 1922 and from 1925 to '28 he contributed to Luigi Pirandello's repertory company, Teatro d'Arte di Roma.

In response to Giovanni Gentile's Manifesto of the Fascist intellectuals, Alvaro was among the signatories of Benedetto Croce's Manifesto of the anti-Fascist intellectuals. The document was published on May Day, 1925 in the anti-Fascist weekly, Il Mondo.

In 1926 Alvaro published his first novella, L'uomo nel labirinto (Man in the Labyrinth). The success was followed up with a collection of short stories, L'amata alla finestra (The Beloved at the Window, 1929) and his second novel, Vent'anni (Twenty Years, 1930), a story about a Southern Italian soldier during the First World War. In 1931 Gente d'Aspromonte won Alvaro the ₤50,000 prize money offered by Turin's popular daily, La Stampa. Pirandello was among the judges who awarded the prize.

A steadfast democrat with strong anti-Fascist convictions made him subject to frequent government surveillance and scrutiny. He felt compelled to leave the country and work as a foreign correspondent for La Stampa. He traveled extensively throughout Europe, Anatolia and the Soviet Union, writing several travel books.

Alvaro returned to San Luca in 1941 for his father's funeral. On July 25th, 1943 he became director of Il popolo di Roma; however, after the German occupation of the city, he fled to Chieti in the Abruzzo under the alias, Guido Giorgi. He remained in hiding until the Germans and what remained of the Fascists retreated farther north.

Theatrical poster for Riso Amaro

Following the war Alvaro founded the National Writers Union (Sindacato degli serittori) with neorealist authors Francesco Jovine and Libero Bigiaretti. In 1947 he briefly directed the South's largest daily, Il Risorgimento, but resigned over ideological differences. He broadened his artistic output by writing screenplays for several motion pictures, including the 1948 verismo classic, Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice). The film was nominated for Best Story at the 1950 Academy Awards. In 1951 his memoir, Quasi una vita (Almost a Life, 1950) won the prestigious Strega Prize for Literature. 

After a long bout with cancer Corrado Alvaro died in Rome on June 11th, 1956. He was only 61-years-old. 

At the time of his death he was considered by many to be one of the most significant figures of modern Italian literature, which makes the dearth of his translated works even more appalling. It's a clear example of how the Italian-American literati failed our community. The limited scope of "Italian studies" to all things Northern Italian has denied generations of Southern Italians knowledge of their own unique history. And as we all know, without history we cannot retain our identity, hence the tenuous state of our community today. If our hypothetical Southern Italian curriculum ever comes to fruition it is essential to include the literary works of Corrado Alvaro.

The following source proved invaluable to this post:
• "Corrado Alvaro" by Francesco Loriggio, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, 2004
• Revolt in Aspromonte (New Directions Paperback, 1962)
• Man Is Strong (Alfred A. Knopf, 1948)
• Plays for a New Theatre: Playbook 2 (New Directions Paperback, 1966)

(1) Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) is considered one of Italy's greatest fiction writers. In his "Liberty" (Little Novels of Sicily, first published in 1883) the peasants refer to the gentry as "hats" because at the time only members of the privileged classes wore them. The story is derived from events following Garibaldi's conquest of Sicily.
(2) Quoted from Revolt in Aspromonte, New Directions Paperback, 1962, p. 12-13
(3) Quoted from "Cornered in Calabria" by Helene Cantarella, New York Times Book Review, June 17, 1962
(4) Quoted from Man is Strong, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, p. 100
(5) Ibid
(6) Quoted from Plays For a New Theater: Playbook 2, New Directions Paperback, 1966, p.2

April 1, 2012

'Sicily is a Woman' at the IAM

(L-R) Anthony Lanni, Laura Campisi and Italian American Museum founder and President Dr. Joseph V. Scelsa (Photo by New York Scugnizzo)
By Giovanni di Napoli

Last Thursday (March 29, 2012) I had the great pleasure of attending Sicilian vocalist Laura Campisi's intriguing presentation, "Sicily is a Woman: The Story of Sicily in Words and Music" at the Italian American Museum in Manhattan's historic Little Italy. Using copious examples from history, folklore and her personal life, Laura passionately described the important role women have played throughout the ages in all facets of Sicilian society. She discussed a variety of topics ranging from the prevalence of the Marian cult in Southern Italy to the rights afforded women in 1231 under Emperor Federico II di Svevia, as codified in his Liber Augustalis or Constitutions of Melfi.

Weaving music into her lecture she performed several Sicilian standards, including 'A curuna, Lu venniri santu and, of course, Amuri ca di notti, a heartrending lament about a weeping woman's anguish over her arranged marriage. I was especially impressed by her masterful interpretation of Vota Navi, a traditional song about a beautiful woman held for ransom by Saracen pirates. In it her husband declares that it would be better to pay the ransom and be broke than to have money and be without his wife. 
No lecture about Sicilian women and music would be complete without paying homage to the legendary Rosa Balistreri (1927-1990), the "Voice of Sicily." Laura spoke glowingly of the Sicilian diva and the influence Balistreri's music had on her own development as a singer. She sang Rosa canta e cunta in her honor.
She closed the event with an original composition inspired by a cherished childhood memory called, La casa del pepe (The House of the Pepper). The touching ballad recalls an intimate moment with her mother among the fragrant peppers in their garden. It's certain to become a classic.

Accompanying Laura on guitar was Anthony Lanni, a very talented young musician specializing in Brazilian music with ancestral roots from Cassino, Italy. I was surprised to learn that Anthony never played Sicilian music before and that the duo had only one rehearsal under their belt prior to the show. Considering their limited preparatory work together, they played with a familiarity and rapport that only truly gifted musicians can pull off. We're going to have to keep our eyes open for future performances from this talented guitarist. 

Anyone interested in learning more about this up-and-coming artist should visit his website at anthonylanni.com.

Laura will be performing again tomorrow night (Monday, April 2, 2012) at Ballarò Cafe (77 2nd Avenue in Manhattan), from 7PM to 9PM. She will sing favorites from her extensive repertoire of Sicilian and Neapolitan folk songs and jazz-folk fusion. I highly recommend going to this show; I was lucky enough to see her there a couple of weeks ago and had a great time. Ballarò Cafe is an excellent venue with great Sicilian fare (try the swordfish carpaccio!), a relaxed ambience and friendly staff. You won't be disappointed.

Available for pre-order — "The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice" Giorgio Sanguinetti

Publication date: April 2012
Hardback: $49.95
Language: English
Pages: 420

At the height of the Enlightenment, four conservatories in Naples stood at the center of European composition. Maestros taught their students to compose with unprecedented swiftness and elegance using the partimento, an instructional tool derived from the basso continuo that encouraged improvisation as the path to musical fluency. Although the practice vanished in the early nineteenth century, its legacy lived on in the music of the next generation. In The Art of Partimento, performer and music-historian Giorgio Sanguinetti chronicles the history of this long-forgotten Neapolitan art. Sanguinetti has painstakingly reconstructed the oral tradition that accompanied these partimento manuscripts, now scattered throughout Europe. Beginning with the origins of the partimento in the circles of Corelli, Pasquini, and Alessandro Scarlatti in Rome and tracing it through the peak of the tradition in Naples, The Art of Partimento gives a glimpse into the daily life and work of an eighteenth century composer. 

The Art of the Partimento is also a complete practical handbook to reviving the tradition today. Step by step, Sanguinetti guides the aspiring composer through elementary realization to more advanced exercises in diminution, imitation, and motivic coherence. Based on the teachings of the original masters, Sanguinetti challenges the reader to become a part of history, providing a variety of original partimenti in a range of genres, forms, styles, and difficulty levels along the way and allowing the student to learn the art of the partimento for themselves at their own pace.

As both history and practical guide, The Art of Partimento presents a new and innovative way of thinking about music theory. Sanguinetti's unique approach unites musicology and music theory with performance, which allows for a richer and deeper understanding than any one method alone, and offers students and scholars of composition and music theory the opportunity not only to understand the life of this fascinating tradition, but to participate in it as well.

Reprinted from Oxford University Press