The Book of the Week is “Half-Life, The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy” by Frank Close, published in 2015. The author himself was a physicist, so he interspersed physics concepts with the evolution of the development of nuclear technology and its major players. This book was written for readers who would like to learn some nuclear physics, and/or those readers curious about the people involved in Cold War / nuclear physics mysteries.
However, Close made an error, spelling “Lise Meitner” as “Lisa Meitner.” Additionally, since the author was neither a historian nor American (he was British) he was mistaken in declaring, “For supporters of communism in the West, this [the autumn 1956 Hungarian uprising which was bloodily crushed by the Soviets] was probably the most serious crisis of conscience since the Soviet pact with the Nazis in 1939.” Actually, in early 1956, Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s horrific crimes to the world. Americans, especially those who considered themselves Social Democrats, were thrown for a loop ideologically, and became bitterly conflicted in their own minds, and with each other.
Anyway, born in Italy in August 1913, Pontecorvo was the fourth of eight children. In 1931, he transferred from the University of Pisa to that of Rome for his third year of physics studies, mentored by Enrico Fermi. Knowledge of particle physics was in its infancy. Pontecorvo and other scientists jointly filed a patent in autumn 1935 in connection with experiments with neutrons and hydrogen.
The year 1936 saw Pontecorvo flee to Paris after Mussolini cracked down on Jews’ liberty. He studied with Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie. He was turned on to Communist ideology by his cousin. They attended meetings and rallies.
By the late 1930’s, physicists (and governments) of different nations such as Germany, France, Italy, the USSR, etc. started to realize how important nuclear processes were for creating future weapons of mass destruction– instrumental for their respective homelands’ national security. Beginning in the summer of 1940, nuclear research became secret in the United States. Scientific journals would no longer publish articles on that topic.
The USSR did not lack for brains, but for uranium in the early 1940’s. Beginning in summer 1942 in Moscow, the Soviets worked on an atomic bomb. But scientists in the United Kingdom had a head start, having begun their work the previous year. In December 1942, the United States started the Manhattan Project.
By the end of the 1940’s, having done nuclear research in Tulsa in Oklahoma, the Northwest Territories in Canada and in Harwell in England, Pontecorvo was planning to move himself, his wife and three sons to Liverpool to become a physics professor. The British intelligence service MI5 secretly pushed him in that direction. As is well known, the United States was gripped by anti-Communist hysteria, with the arrests of spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs.
The summer of 1950 saw the Pontecorvo family take a summer vacation in France, Switzerland, and the Italian countryside. There is circumstantial evidence that he met with his Communist cousin and suddenly, all bets were off.
Read the book to learn the fate of the family, the contributions made to science by the scientist, learn why he neither won the Nobel Prize nor collected royalties on the aforementioned patent, and much more.