The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy


By Frank Close

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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? A protege of Enrico Fermi, Pontecorvo was one of the most promising nuclear physicists in the world. He spent years hunting for the Higgs boson of his day — the neutrino — 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, perhaps even the Nobel Prize?

In Half-Life, physicist and historian Frank Close offers a heretofore untold history of Pontecorvo’s life, based on unprecedented access to Pontecorvo’s friends and family and the Russian scientists with whom he would later work. 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: when it created the bomb. Physics at perhaps its most powerful: when it created the bomb.


  • Aberdeen Press and Journal (UK)
    “At times [Half-Life] feels more like a cold war spy novel as Pontecorvo's life takes some extraordinary twists and turns, which will keep readers new and old glued until the end.”

    Times Higher Education Supplement (UK)
    “[Half-Life] is a tale whose le Carré-esque cast of spies, double agents, couriers, intercepted messages and clandestine escapes cries out for dramatisation. Close tells it well, but eschews any novelistic invention of scenes whose details he cannot know.”

    The Scotsman (Scotland)
    “[Close] shows flair for writing a biography that is both rivetingly fascinating for those of us who are interested in the history of science and highly readable for those who have a taste for mystery thrillers.... [An] excellent biography.”

    John Gribbin, author of In Search of Schrödinger's Cat
    “Frank Close's books get better and better. Half-Life is an enthralling insight into the life and times of one of the most mysterious characters of twentieth century science. Weaving together a fascinating personal life and the politics of the Cold War with his usual insightful exposition of physics, Close has produced a triumph of scientific biography. For once, truth really is stranger than fiction.”
  • Library Journal
    “Close does an excellent job of describing the personal and professional lives of his subject, as well as the international intelligence community's investigations of Pontecorvo before and after he defected to the Soviet Union. This fascinating and well-researched account will appeal to a wide range of readers, including those interested in World War II and the foundation of the Manhattan Project, the Cold War, particle physics, the process of scientific investigation, and the life of scientists.”

    Publishers Weekly
    “[A]n intensively researched, engrossing biography that turns up some suspicious behavior and mildly incriminating documents.... Close serves Pontecorvo well in this outstanding biography, illuminating his work as well as the painful political conflicts of his time.”

    Kirkus Reviews
    “[An] insightful biography.... Close's intense research turns up hints that [Pontecorvo] spied and, warned by other spies, fled to avoid arrest. A fine account, heavy on science and politics, of a long, productive, peripatetic and ultimately inexplicable life.”

    Graham Farmelo, The Guardian (UK)
    “Frank Close brings a fresh perspective to the story.... [I]mpressively researched.”

  • Nature
    “Too many books are fêted as reading ‘like spy novels', but Close's work deserves the accolade. He makes a good circumstantial case for Pontecorvo being a spy.”

    Open Letters Monthly
    “[U]tterly absorbing.... Close brings a great deal of new and groundbreaking research to the question of whether or not Pontecorvo had been an active spy even before he and his family defected.... Half-Life is a remarkably thorough analysis…a grim and depressing double-history of one of the worst and most fascinating traitors of the atomic arms race that defined a generation. The fact that the book's readers will close its final page knowing much, much more about nuclear physics than they did when they started it is a very pleasing by-product, to use a loaded term.”

    Washington Post
    “[Half-Life] ranges over physics, the arms race, Cold War politics and, most poignantly, the personal costs of the elder Pontecorvo's choice.”
  • Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong
    “[A] gripping spy story, investigating the question of exactly why Pontecorvo fled with his family to the Soviet Union in 1950.... Besides the fascinating spy story, there's also a lot of history of nuclear physics during the 30s, 40s and 50s…as well as quite a bit about Pontecorvo's later work on neutrinos. If you're interested in the history of 20th century physics, this is something you'll find well worth reading.”

    Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books
    “Close tells the story of Pontecorvo's life in sharp detail, with all the facts and conjectures carefully documented.”

    Wall Street Journal
    “It is a remarkable story–part physics and part Cold War intrigue–and it is wonderfully told in Half-Life, a biography by the Oxford physicist Frank Close.... There is much about this tale that has the flavor of a le Carré novel, with the additional advantage that it is all true.”

    Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
    “[D]elves into a man and a mystery that deserve to be better known.”

    The Economist
    “[A]n engrossing new book.... But [Pontecorvo's] alleged deceit is only half of the story. Mr. Close, a physicist himself, also explains the science that made him so valuable.”

    Physics World, Top Physics Books of 2015
    “Close's book digs deeply into the history and science of this still-unsolved mystery of 20th-century physics, and according to reviewer Simone Turchetti (himself the author of a major Pontecorvo study), Close's ‘contagious enthusiasm' brings us closer to answers than ever before.”

    Laura Helmuth, New York Times Book Review
    “The five-year disappearance of the brilliant Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo is one of the Cold War's enduring mysteries, and the subject of this riveting study.”

    Nature Physics
    “What sets Close's work apart is that, in addition to bringing to light new archival material obtained from the UK intelligence agency MI5, it also describes in detail the context and significance of Pontecorvo's research over the course of his career.... Whereas the book will inevitably attract readers interested in a good story about espionage, Half-Life is also a masterful reappraisal of Pontecorvo's scientific achievements.”

    Half-Life is more of a general biography of Pontecorvo, one simultaneously personal, political, and scientific.... [Close anchors] the narrative in archival discoveries, personal connections, and interviews.”

On Sale
Feb 3, 2015
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Frank Close

About the Author

Frank Close, OBE, FRS is a particle physicist and an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Oxford. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Infinity Puzzle and Half-Life. He lives in Oxford, England. 

Learn more about this author