Intelligence in Public Media

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

Frank Close (Basic, 2015), 378 pps.

Reviewed by John Ehrman

Was he or wasn’t he a spy? This is the unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, question that has been asked about Bruno Pontecorvo for more than 60 years. Pontecorvo was from a prominent Jewish-Italian family and became one of the world’s most prominent physicists in the mid-20th century, living and working in Italy, France, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He was, however, also a secret communist and defected to the Soviet Union in 1950. Now, in a carefully researched and generally well-presented biography, Frank Close untangles the threads of Pontecorvo’s life.

Pontecorvo came from a privileged background. Born in 1913 to a family that had become wealthy in the textile industry, he was one of eight children. Bruno was athletic and intellectually gifted and, at the age of 16, entered the University of Pisa as an engineering student. He switched to physics, however, and transferred to the University of Rome, where he became a protégé of Enrico Fermi and, at 21, joined the great physicist’s team. Soon he was engaged in the work that would eventually make him a pioneer in research on neutrinos.

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Posted: Feb 08, 2016 12:09 PM
Last Updated: Feb 08, 2016 12:09 PM