Skip to main content

Half Life - Frank Close ****

It would be easy from the title of this book to suspect that physics professor Frank Close is writing about... well, radioactive half lives, but the subtitle tells us this is really on a more complex topic: 'The divided life of Bruno Pontecorvo, physicist or spy'. (I feel there ought to be a question mark at the end of that.)

Frank Close is a familiar name, with a string of excellent books focusing on specific topics in physics like Antimatter, The Infinity Puzzle and my particular favourite, Neutrino. This last title is particular apt, as neutrinos feature heavily in Half Life too, but this is a very different beast. In Half Life we get a scientific biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, the Italian physicist who worked on nuclear reactors during the Second World War, moved to Harwell in the UK soon after, but then, in 1950, mysteriously disappeared without trace. Five years later he appeared in the Soviet Union where he lived and worked for the rest of a long life.

What's very welcome about this book is that it gives us the chance to put Pontecorvo in his place in the annals of physics. Arguably he would have been a Nobel Prize winner if he hadn't disappeared into Russian obscurity, and he continued to do important work at Dubna, particularly around neutrino theory. But Pontecorvo's disappearance meant that a) speculation about this dominated any popular writing about him and b) his scientific work didn't really get the credit he deserved.

There are really three strands here - Pontecorvo's life, his work and the nature of his relationship with the Soviet Union - and Close covers them all in some detail in over 300 pages before you reach the notes. Apart from finding out more about Pontecorvo's work on neutrinos there is some fascinating material on his time in Fermi's lab in Italy. I hadn't realised, for instance, that Fermi and his team took out a patent on the slow neutron process that made nuclear chain reactions practical. One of the reasons that some of Pontecorvo's former colleagues gave him the cold shoulder after his defection was that his disappearance damaged their lawsuit for a large payment from the US government.

I'd still say that the Neutrino book is the best way to read up on these fascinating particles - here the scence parts tend to be a bit disjointed, because some aspects of the development involved messy overlaps and the chronology flips back and forth, and the science is fitted around the people part. But you will certainly gain some insights. There is also the key mystery that has never been solved - was Pontecorvo a Soviet spy who defected when he was in danger of being revealed, or just a naive communist who thought he was heading for a better life?

Close isn't able to provide us with a definitive answer to that question, but he pieces together evidence that gives a strong suggestion of Pontecorvo's role, which Close admits was totally different to his own expectation. (You'll have to read the book to get the answer.) The detective work is painstaking, perhaps giving us rather more detail than we really want. But the story of the key few days when the Pontecorvos (his wife and children disappeared with him) gave every appearance of being on an enjoyable European motoring holiday before things suddenly become strange is told very well.

This was a part of the history of physics that has never been properly explored in popular science, with a good mix of biography and the key science behind it. While I can't go as far as one of the quotes on the back which refers to it as a 'gripping scientific spy mystery' - the grip is mostly quite loose - it is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a good feel for what Fermi's team did before the war, the machinations of wartime science spying and the development of neutrino theory. Close does a great job of putting Pontecorvo in his proper place in the history of physics, and (as much as is possible) draws back the curtain of mystery that has always covered his relationship with the Soviet Union.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lucy Jane Santos - Four Way Interview

Lucy Jane Santos is an expert in the history of 20th century leisure, health and beauty, with a particular interest in (some might say obsession with) the cultural history of radioactivity. Writes & talks (a lot) about cocktails and radium. Her debut book Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium was published by Icon Books in July 2020.

Why science?

I have always been fascinated by the idea of science especially our daily interactions with and understandings of science – especially in a beauty context. I could spend hours pondering the labels of things on my bathroom shelf. What is 4-t-butylcyclohexanol (as a random example)? Do I really understand what I am putting on my face and spending my money on? Would it change my purchase habits if I did?  

Why this book?

This book came from an accidental discovery – that there was a product called Tho Radia which contained radium and thorium. I found out about it because I actually bought a pot of it – along with a big batch of other produc…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…

Is Einstein Still Right? - Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes ***

If there's one thing that gets a touch tedious in science reporting it's the news headlines that some new observation or experiment 'proves Einstein right' - as if we're still not sure about relativity. At first glance that's what this book does too, but in reality Clifford Will and Nicolas Yunes are celebrating the effectiveness of the general theory of relativity, while being conscious that there may still be situations where, for whatever reason, the general theory is not sufficient.

It's a genuinely interesting book - what Will and Yunes do is take experiments that are probably familiar to the regular popular science reader already and expand on the simplified view of them we are usually given. So, for example, one of the first things they mention is the tower experiments to show the effect of gravitational red shift. I was aware of these experiments, but what we get here goes beyond the basics of the conceptual experiment to deal with the realities of d…