Months after the 1950 arrest of British nuclear physicist Klaus Fuchs, Bruno Pontecorvo (1913-1993) vanished behind the Iron Curtain. Everyone assumed that he was also a Soviet spy, but extensive investigation found no evidence that he provided secrets to the Soviets.
In this insightful biography, British physicist and writer Close (Physics/Univ. of Oxford; The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, 2011, etc.) does not ignore Pontecorvo’s brilliant research and the tortuous political turmoil of his era. (The United States Congress described him as “the second deadliest spy in history.”) Born into a wealthy, superachieving Italian family, he was 18 when he joined Enrico Fermi in Rome and contributed to groundbreaking 1934 experiments showing that slowing neutrons made them vastly more efficient in exploring the atom. Moving to France and then fleeing to America after the 1940 German invasion, Pontecorvo spent three years in a Canadian laboratory building the first heavy water reactor. Although only peripherally related to the Manhattan project, its scientists often consulted colleagues who were directly involved. In 1948, popular and highly respected, Pontecorvo moved to Britain and was working on the British atom bomb when he disappeared. Five years passed before he reappeared to express his pleasure at being a Soviet citizen, an opinion he did not publicly change until the Soviet Union collapsed. A privileged member of its scientific elite, he continued world-class research into neutrons and neutrinos. The Nobel committee has no objection to communists but dislikes controversy, so Pontecorvo’s defection probably deprived him of the prize. Close’s intense research turns up hints that he 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.