Half Life

Pages: 400
Subject: Biography, Popular Science
Imprint: Oneworld

Half Life

The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy

Frank Close

A true-life tale of nuclear secrets, Soviet spies and MI5

The Book

The memo landed on Kim Philby's desk in Washington, DC, in July 1950. Three months later, Bruno Pontecorvo, a physicist at Harwell, Britain's atomic energy lab, disappeared without a trace. When he re-surfaced six years later, he was on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

One of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, Pontecorvo was privy to many secrets: he had worked on the Anglo-Canadian arm of the Manhattan Project, and quietly discovered a way to find the uranium coveted by nuclear powers. Yet when he disappeared MI5 insisted he was not a threat. Now, based on unprecedented access to archives, letters, surviving family members and scientists, award-winning writer and physics professor Frank Close exposes the truth about a man irrevocably marked by the advent of the atomic age and the Cold War.

Additional Information

Subject Biography, Popular Science
Pages 400
Imprint Oneworld


About the Author

Frank Close, OBE, is Professor of Physics at Oxford University and a Fellow of Exeter College. He was formerly Vice President of the British Association for Advancement of Science and Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. He is the author of more than 200 research papers and two-time winner of the Association of British Science Writers award. 


‘A fascinating story…gives many insights that will amaze’.

- CERN Courier

'[Close's] book is a fully dimensioned life that is vital, illuminating and absorbing, often in the vain of a thriller'.

- Times Literary Supplement

‘A remarkable story…surprising… a tale whose le Carré-esque cast of spies, double agents, couriers, intercepted messages and clandestine escapes cries out for dramatisation. Close tells it well'

- Times Higher Education

‘Engrossing… Like any good spy story, this one involves Kim Philby'

- Economist

‘It is a remarkable story-part physics and part Cold War intrigue-and it is wonderfully told in Half-Life, a biography by the Oxford physicist Frank Close.... There is much about this tale that has the flavor of a le Carré novel, with the additional advantage that it is all true.'

- Wall Street Journal

‘Compelling… fascinating… beautifully written… likely to remain the definitive history of an elusive and long misunderstood character'

- BBC History

‘[Half-Life] ranges over physics, the arms race, Cold War politics and, most poignantly, the personal costs of the elder Pontecorvo's choice.'

- Washington Post

‘What sets Close's work apart is that, in addition to bringing to light new archival material obtained from the UK intelligence agency MI5, it also describes in detail the context and significance of Pontecorvo's research over the course of his career.... Whereas the book will inevitably attract readers interested in a good story about espionage, Half-Life is also a masterful reappraisal of Pontecorvo's scientific achievements.'

- Nature Physics

‘Close tells the story of Pontecorvo's life in sharp detail, with all the facts and conjectures carefully documented.'

- Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books

‘Fascinating… feels more like a cold war spy novel… will keep readers new and old glued until the end'

- Press Association

‘This book could only be written by someone who is an authoritative and distinguished physicist… excellent' 

- Scotsman

‘Could have formed the basis of a Dick Francis-type action thriller, or a John le Carre spy story with added science… gives fascinating insight into the science behind the Iron Curtain… Close gives clear insight into the physics, without going into the kind of depth which might frighten non-scientists'

- Literary Review

‘Frank Close brings a fresh perspective to the story… impressively researched'

- Guardian

‘Too many books are fêted as reading ‘like spy novels', but Close's work deserves the accolade… Close is at his best when describing Ponte­corvo's work in neutrinos and neutron detec­tion, demonstrating how groundbreaking it was'   

- Nature

‘Frank Close has done it again, this time dissecting a great physicist's work entwined with a gripping scientific spy mystery. Close explains the fundamental contributions that Pontecorvo made to nuclear and neutrino physics, but did he also pass information to the Soviet Union? Read this fascinating book and make up your own mind!' 

- John Ellis, Clerk Maxwell Professor of Theoretical Physics, King’s College London, and CERN

‘[An] insightful biography.... Close's intense research turns up hints that [Pontecorvo] 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.'

- Kirkus Reviews

‘Frank Close books get better and better. Half-Life is an enthralling insight into the life and times of one of the most mysterious characters of twentieth century science. Weaving together a fascinating personal life and the politics of the Cold War with his usual insightful exposition of physics, Close has produced a triumph of scientific biography. For once, truth really is stranger than fiction.'

- John Gribbin, author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat

Half-Life is a riveting Cold War mystery about a scientist whose life was as elusive as the particles he studied. Frank Close paints a fascinating portrait of the enigmatic man who helped bring the mysteries of neutrinos to the world's attention, while slipping in and out of public view and presumed to be a spy for the Soviets. Impeccably researched, Half-Life masterfully illuminates its shadowy target, offering a lucid assessment of Bruno Pontecorvo's vital scientific contributions.' 

- Paul Halpern, author of Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat