Half-Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy

Written by Frank Close

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 protégé 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 scientsts 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.

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Featured On Episode #326