A Life of Two Halves: Bruno Pontecorvo - Mr Neutrino... and spy?

6 January 2015

On 10 December 2014, Professor Frank Close of Oxford University gave a lecture entitled The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo.

Professor Frank Close

As the title suggests, Pontecorvo’s life did split into two parts, the pivotal point being his sudden – and apparently unplanned – flight to the USSR in September 1950. His motives remain mysterious, but Close discussed possible theories. At this time of the Cold War, the West was gripped by ‘spy-mania’ but there is no hard evidence that Pontecorvo passed secret information to the Russians or received any clandestine payment. However, he was known to be a Communist sympathiser.

Pontecorvo  (born in Pisa, Italy 1913) had a coruscating early career in nuclear physics working with Fermi in Rome before moving to Paris from which city he fled (by bicycle) in 1940. He eventually reached North America and worked as an oil prospector using neutron technology. He moved to Chalk River, Canada, and then to Harwell, England. Clearly, he interacted with people involved in sensitive research. Perhaps suspicions were aroused because in 1950 he was scheduled to leave Harwell for a post at Liverpool University. It never happened: while on a summer family holiday in Europe, he and the family ‘disappeared’.

Behind the Iron Curtain Pontecorvo pursued his research at the Dubna nuclear centre. He made seminal contributions to neutrino physics but was impeded by the Soviet authorities’ refusal to grant him an exit visa until 1978. It is arguable that this, and other restrictions, cost him a share in a Nobel Prize. One feels that his decision to leave the West may have cost him a lot more. He died in Russia in 1993.

As ever, Close is an engaging lecturer and the talk was much enjoyed by an appreciative audience.