Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Half-Life by Frank Close ****

Bruno Pontecorvo was an important twentieth-century physicist, a student of Enrico Fermi, a member of the Manhattan Project, and central to neutrino research and the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. You might have two responses to this information. First, you might ask, “Standard Model? What is that?” In that case, this biography written by a physicist is not for you. The author assumes at least a passing familiarity with for quantum mechanics and particle physics. Second, you might ask, “Why I haven’t I heard of him?” or even, “Why didn’t he receive a Nobel Prize.” In this latter case, Half-Life by Frank Close is the book you’ve been looking for.

Bruno Pontecorvo escaped the Fascists in Italy by going to France. He escaped the German invasion of France, by going to the United States. He avoided the xenophobic Americans by moving to Canada. After World War II, he took British Citizenship and moved to England to avoid McCarthyism. Then, in 1950 while on vacation with his family in Italy, he defected to the U.S.S.R. with his Swedish wife Marianne, and three sons, Gil, Tito, and Antonio.

The first job he had in the United States was prospecting for oil in Oklahoma during the war.
“One-day Bruno was driving a truck full of geophysical instruments… the police became suspicious when they noticed the array of unusual instruments… they realized he wasn’t American and exclaimed, “Enemy alien!” … the police, who thought he was reaching for a gun, immediately immobilized him… the police explained that he had risked being killed.”
Soon afterward he moved to Canada.

Following Pontecorvo’s defection, the British and American security services examined their files in detail uncovering many humorous-in-retrospect incidents. In one case, a British file warned of the dearth of British citizens on the Canadian part of the Manhattan Project. However, history showed that the only British citizen was a Russian spy. In another case, they questioned a British intelligence officer for not consulting the Italians about Pontocorvo’s history as a member of the Communist Party.
[he sighed that] in 1943 Britain had been at war with Italy, so “consultation would have been rather difficult.”
On the science side of the story, there was a mystery for 40 years about the detection of neutrinos from the Sun. I remember reading periodic science stories about, first the building of bigger detectors, and then discovering a shortage of observed neutrinos. Pontecorvo ultimately helped to solve this mystery by explaining how some solar neutrinos changed on their way to the detectors. This was the first I’ve read about the solution to this problem.

This book was more of a history than a biography as there were few personal stories. One anecdote demonstrated how scientists view the world. Pontecorvo hypothesized that there were more beautiful women in Paris that Marseilles. He immediately suggested an experiment. “Just count the number of plain women that pass before an attractive one appears.” He was eighty at the time.

If you have an interest in the high-energy physics in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the cold war, this is the book for you.