A divided life

Adapt from my latest contribution to the Literary Review

Half Life


Frank Close

Frank Close used to be a research physicist who wrote rather good books on the side. Latterly, his research activity has declined, and he has devoted rather more time to writing even better books. On the evidence of Half Life, which is undoubtedly his best book so far, it is a pity for us that he did not give up the day job sooner. No longer a physicist who writes, he is now a writer with a background in physics, in the same way that after “retiring” Dick Francis became a writer with a background in horse racing.

Indeed, the story told here, of the divided life of the Italian physicist Bruno Pontecorvo, could have formed the basis of a Dick Francis type of action thriller, or a John Le Carré scientific spy story. For the first (roughly) half of his life, up until 1950, Pontecorvo was a respectable and respected member of the physics community. By then, he had already had an adventurous life. Born in Italy, he worked with the nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi in Rome, contributing to work on radioactivity which before long became vital in the design of nuclear reactors. This is one reason for the title of Close’s book, since the “half life” of a sample of radioactive material is the time it takes for half of the atomic nuclei in the sample to decay into other elements. In 1936, Pontecorvo moved to Paris to join the internationally renowned team working under Frédéric and Irène Joliot Curie, who had already won the Nobel Prize for their work.

Pontecorvo was very much a rising star in the physics firmament, but he was also politically active, among the left-wing community in Paris. In 1940, when the Germans invaded France, he was in double danger as a left-wing Jew, and soon also became an enemy alien when Italy joined the war. He managed to escape via Spain and Portugal to the USA (an odyssey in itself), where he applied his expertise in industry until being recruited into the British-Canadian nuclear project at Chalk River, a counterpart to the work on an “atomic pile” being undertaken by Enrico Fermi (another refugee from Fascism) and his team in Chicago. At this point, the plot begins to thicken. Unknown to the British, the American authorities were unhappy about Pontecorvo’s left-wing sympathies. But this did not stop him being a member of a team that visited Chicago to discuss the progress with Fermi’s nuclear reactor there, gleaning information of immense value to the British-Canadian project. And, perhaps, he was also passing information about nuclear reactor design (although not about nuclear weapons) to the Soviet Union.

After the war, Pontecorvo made ground-breaking contributions to the theory of neutrinos, and moved to Harwell, having become a British citizen, in January 1949. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly. But just a year later, while on a family holiday in Italy, Pontecorvo, together with his wife and children, disappeared. There is no evidence that this was pre-planned. Milk and papers had been cancelled for the duration of the holiday, but with instructions for deliveries to start again the day they were scheduled to return. Clothes were hanging in the wardrobes. The speculation was that the family had gone to the USSR, but this was only confirmed when Pontecorvo resurfaced there in 1955. But what had spooked him?

It seems that the CIA had firmed up their suspicions about Pontecorvo, although still without any real evidence, and had written to the British warning them not to trust him. The letter referred to “possible communist or pro-communist tendencies”, and named Pontecorvo along withy another physicist and a biologist. This was at the time Kim Philby, the notorious double agent, was the MI6 man in Washington, liasing with the CIA. Close infers that Philby tipped off Moscow, and Moscow tipped off Pontecorvo while he was in Italy and engineered his “escape”.

The irony is that without hard evidence Pontecorvo would never have been convicted in Britain. All the Americans had was a suggestion that Pontecorvo was at least a fellow traveller and was friendly with communists. Most probably, in Britain he would no longer have been allowed access to secret work, but could have taken up a post as a professor at a university. The only real evidence we have that Pontecorvo had been spying is the fact that he did defect. So his second “half life” began as a result of a misconception.

Close is able to describe the rest of his subject’s life and the details of the “escape” in detail, thanks to the availability of documents and interview subjects made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite apart from the personal story of Pontecorvo, this gives a fascinating insight into science behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s and 1960s, when researchers such as Pontecorvo had no choice but to publish in Russian language journals that were scarcely read in the West, and there was no internet or email. Because some of his most important work was overlooked as a result, Pontecorvo missed out on receiving a share of the Nobel Prize, which he thoroughly deserved for his work on neutrinos.

Close, of course, gives us a clear insight into the physics, without going into any depth that might frighten non-scientists. But that is what we have come to expect from him. The unexpected delight here is the enthralling insight into the life and times of a scientist, not just his scientific work. I hope this will not be a one-off. There are plenty of other potential subjects for such a treatment, not least Pontecorvo’s contemporary Klaus Fuchs. I live I hope.

John Gribbin is a Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex

His latest book, Before the Big Bang, is available as a Kindle Single


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