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The Pontecorvo Affair

A Cold War Defection and Nuclear Physics

In the fall of 1950, newspapers around the world reported that the Italian-born nuclear physicist Bruno Pontecorvo and his family had mysteriously disappeared while returning to Britain from a holiday trip. Because Pontecorvo was known to be an expert working for the UK Atomic Energy Research Establishment, this raised immediate concern for the safety of atomic secrets, especially when it became known in the following months that he had defected to the Soviet Union. Was Pontecorvo a spy? Did he know and pass sensitive information about the bomb to Soviet experts? At the time, nuclear scientists, security personnel, Western government officials, and journalists assessed the case, but their efforts were inconclusive and speculations quickly turned to silence. In the years since, some have downplayed Pontecorvo’s knowledge of atomic weaponry, while others have claimed him as part of a spy ring that infiltrated the Manhattan Project.
The Pontecorvo Affair draws from newly disclosed sources to challenge previous attempts to solve the case, offering a balanced and well-documented account of Pontecorvo, his activities, and his possible motivations for defecting. Along the way, Simone Turchetti reconsiders the place of nuclear physics and nuclear physicists in the twentieth century and reveals that as the discipline’s promise of military and industrial uses came to the fore, so did the enforcement of new secrecy provisions on the few experts in the world specializing in its application.

272 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Biography and Letters

History of Science

Physical Sciences: Physics--Popular Books


“[Turchetti] upends the notion that Pontecorvo’s limited access to atomic ‘secrets’ made his defection a minor footnote to cold-war history. He argues compellingly that it was Pontecorvo’s expertise in key areas of nuclear physics, rather than access to secret work, that made his defection significant.”

Sharon Weinberger | Nature

“The book is dense in details about secrecy, FBI investigations, Cold War politics, patents, spying, and personal intrigues. . . . This book will be useful to those seriously interested in the history of physics. Recommended.”

A. M. Strauss, Vanderbilt University | Choice

“The specter of atomic espionage, a sudden defection to the Soviet Union: for more than half a century, the strange case of Bruno Pontecorvo has captivated policymakers, journalists, and scholars. Throw in some contested patents, millions of dollars at stake, and fast-changing developments in international relations and intellectual-property rights in the atomic age, and the case becomes even more fascinating. Most revealing of all in Simone Turchetti’s clear and sober analysis are the political calculations behind the selective collection and targeted release of sensitive information, all in the name of nuclear security. A must-read for anyone interested in nuclear physics, the Cold War, and their legacies today.”

David Kaiser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 “Western readers know Bruno Pontecorvo as a nuclear expert who defected to Russia in 1950. This book opens up a rich story behind the episode—of an Italian physicist with a Jewish background and communist sympathies who lived through very insecure times and worked as a scientist in Fascist Italy, socialist Paris, and oil-rich America, on classified nuclear projects in Canada and Britain, and in the Stalinist USSR. Turchetti’s tongue-in-cheek analysis of the work of security services is a revelation for all who are keenly interested in spies and conspiracy theories.”

Alexei Kojevnikov, University of British Columbia

“This book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of Bruno Pontecorvo’s work as a physicist, of his political activities, and of the circumstances surrounding his defection to the Soviet Union in 1950.”

John Krige, Georgia Institute of Technology

“Was Bruno Pontecorvo a dangerous spy, as the media argued, or harmless, as the UK government claimed when he defected to the Soviet Union in 1950? Simone Turchetti digs deeper into this affair than anyone before and shows that there were many agendas at work. While the truth may never be known, Turchetti’s thesis is compelling and assiduously researched. This adds invaluable insights to the politics and history of the Cold War.”

Frank Close, University of Oxford

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Silent Quake

1  The Training of a Nuclear Physicist
2  Neutrons for Peace and Neutrons for War
3  Under Surveillance
4  Ten Million Reasons to Disappear
5  Play it Up or Down? Confronting the Pontecorvo Affair
6  A Political Motive
7  Bruno Maximovich and Professor Pontecorvo
8  Conclusions: The Noisy Echo of Secrecy

List of Abbreviations

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