Half life: the divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo, physicist or spy

half-life(Photo credit: publisher – Oneworld)

(Image above shows a man’s face shown in two halves, with the title of the book ‘Half-life: the divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo, physicist or spy, and the author’s name: Frank Close)

The memo landed on Kim Philby’s desk in Washington, DC, in July 1950. Three months later, Bruno Pontecorvo, a physicist at Harwell, Britain’s atomic energy lab, disappeared without a trace.

It was at the height of the Cold War, in the summer of 1950, when Bruno Pontecorvo mysteriously vanished behind the Iron Curtain. Who was he, and what caused him to disappear? Was he simply a physicist, or also a spy and communist radical?

Pontecorvo was one of the most promising nuclear physicists in the world. He spent years hunting for the neutrino – the Higgs boson of his day – a nearly massless particle thought to be essential to the process of particle decay. His work on the Manhattan Project helped to usher in the nuclear age, and confirmed his reputation as a brilliant physicist. Why, then, would he disappear as he stood on the cusp of true greatness?

When he re-surfaced six years later, he was on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Bruno Pontecorvo’s passage through the Iron Curtain split his life into two almost-equal halves. This split defined his scientific life: great insights at the end of the first half were frustrated by his move to the Soviet Union and may have cost him his share of a Nobel Prize.

His personality was also divided into complementary halves. On the one hand there was Bruno Pontecorvo, the extroverted, highly visible, brilliant scientist, and on the other was his alter ego: Bruno Maximovitch, the enigmatic, shadowy figure who was secretly committed to the communist dream.

One of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, Pontecorvo was privy to many secrets. Yet when he disappeared MI5 insisted he was not a threat.

Now, based on unprecedented access to archives, letters, surviving family members and scientists, award-winning writer and physics professor Frank Close exposes the truth about a man irrevocably marked by the advent of the atomic age and the Cold War.

In Half-life, Close takes a microscope to Pontecorvo’s life, combining a thorough biography of one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century with the drama of Cold War espionage. With all the elements of a Cold War thriller—classified atomic research, an infamous double agent, a possible kidnapping by Soviet operatives—Half-Life is a history of nuclear physics at perhaps its most powerful.

Further details of Half-life: the divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo can be found on the main catalogue, available in ‘Catalogues’ on the Library’s website.