Monday, February 8, 2016

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

I believe most of us who are not physicists or who are not much interested in physics have never heard of Bruno Pontecorvo's name. The moment I saw the title of the book, I fell in love with it and had this strong urge to read it. As a science books enthusiast, I consider myself a knowledgeable person when it comes to names of scientists and their accomplishments. But, there I was, standing in front of this book and had no idea who he was. 

Bruno Pontecorvo was an Italian physicist whose academic advisor was Enrico Fermi! Although he didn't excel in his informal examination with Enrico Fermi, he was accepted to join Fermi's team that was later known as Via Panisperna Boys as an experimental physicist. In fact, at the age of 21 he published his first paper with Fermi. Here he witnessed the first use of slow-neutron technique and became one of the names on the patent of this technology. Around this time, he became an active supporter of communism. The atmosphere being very dangerous for Jews, he fled Italy and joined Irene Curie and Frederic Joliot's research team. Later in 1940, he had to escape Europe to start his new job as an oil inspector in the US. He started to use neutrons to locate oil-rich terrains which would have made him a millionaire had he patented it as he confesses. In 1943, he joined the researchers at Chalk River to work on the nuclear projects there. By the end of the 2nd World War, he started to focus his research on neutrinos and how to capture them and moved to Britain in 1949 to work at Harwell. Here at Harwell, his ties to communism and previous suspicions about him caused a lot of trouble. Finally, in September 1950, Bruno and his family disappeared in Helsinki. It was 5 years later that the world heard of him. He was in Soviet Union working in Dubna. 

Frank Close did a wonderful job in combining Bruno Pontecorvo's science and his life. He gives enough information and background about the other names that are relevant to Bruno's story which is really helpful. We still don't know if he was a spy or not, but his contributions to physics is very clear. There have been a few Nobel Prizes in Physics  that he would have easily won. Unfortunately, being in Soviet Union, isolated and having limited access to modern equipment caused the Nobel committee not to recognize his work. This is not only a great life story, but also a really good popular science book where you can find technical but simple information about nuclear physics and the history of nuclear physics.

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