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Half Life

The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy

Frank Close

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.

  • Publication date: September 3, 2015
  • ISBN: 9781780747460
  • RRP: £9.99
  • Pages: 400


‘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’


‘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’ 


‘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

Author page

More books by Frank Close

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