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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: March 5, 2015
  • ISBN: 9781780745817
  • RRP: £20.00
  • Pages: 400
  • Publication date: March 5, 2015
  • ISBN: 9781780745824
  • RRP: £4.99
  • Pages: 400


'The extraordinary story of Bruno Pontecorvo has cast a long shadow over the nuclear age' 

Gloucestershire Echo

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

BBC History

‘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

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

Press Association

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


‘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 brings a fresh perspective to the story… impressively researched’


‘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’   


‘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

Frank Close

Author page

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