The Pontecorvo Affair: A Cold War Defection and Nuclear Physics

The Pontecorvo Affair: A Cold War Defection and Nuclear Physics

by Simone Turchetti


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226816647
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/27/2012
Edition description: Translatio
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Simone Turchetti is an independent research fellow at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester.

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The Pontecorvo Affair

A Cold War Defection and Nuclear Physics
By Simone Turchetti

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-81664-7

Chapter One

The Training of a Nuclear Physicist

An Italian-born British-naturalised scientist [...] is missing [...]. Professor Pontecorvo was born in Pisa forty years ago and left Italy in the middle 1930's during Mussolini's campaign against the Jews. He went to France, and after the Nazi occupation of that country to the United States. "Atomic Expert Missing. Gone to Prague," Manchester Guardian 21 October 1950

"Who the hell is he?" Imagine the journalists' bewilderment as news of the mysterious disappearance of a nuclear physicist landed on their desks. Bruno Pontecorvo, like many other protagonists of wartime research, had been by and large invisible to the wider public. Of course a few celebrated discoverers and scientific leaders of recent nuclear projects, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi, featured regularly in the news. But most of their colleagues' work and biographies were cloaked in secrecy. Journalists thus had to browse the few newspaper articles that summarized key episodes in Pontecorvo's career, or magazine pieces popularizing major discoveries in nuclear physics, to retrieve meaningful facts on his past.

As information started to pile up, a sketchy account began to take shape emphasizing three aspects above all: Pontecorvo was an Italian Reform Jew, an émigré scientist, and allegedly a communist sympathizer. This fragmented identity constitutes in itself a remarkable illustration of the many different tensions that had typified his adolescence and early training as a scientist during the 1920s and 1930s. This chapter seeks to illustrate this fragmentation.

As a Reform Jew, Pontecorvo shared the experience of many members of his social cohort: the expectations deriving from emancipation in the post-unitary period of the Italian kingdom, as well as the tragedy of forced exile because of racial legislation during the Fascist regime. The Jews' social integration—their growing involvement in entrepreneurial, cultural, and political activities—coincided with their secularization. Only a few still maintained a strong religious identity.

As a scientist Pontecorvo learned, as did many other European intellectuals, the importance of assessing the advancement of science in the light of its applications. He was trained in considering its industrial uses as a way to build financial stability and a personal reputation. Science was discovery and invention, knowledge and wealth. Pontecorvo's encounter with one of the most promising and prolific research units in the country, Enrico Fermi's group at the Institute of Physics in Rome, sublimated these aspirations. Pontecorvo contributed to the key findings that allowed the group to propel itself beyond participation in the international debate on nuclear physics. He also envisaged practical uses for the artificial production of radioisotopes. These applications highlighted the importance of patents in ensuring a monopoly on their exploitation, thereby merging scientific research and business.

These trajectories of religious and professional identity intersect that of political participation in interesting ways. The activism of European Jews matched their wish for participation in public life as well as their scientific aspirations. The idea that science and technology could favor economic progress and modernization was transversal to political formations. In the 1930s, the Fascist regime endorsed it and sought to substantiate it through innovative policies. But it also attracted those who saw the communion between science and socialism as the true political alternative. While in Rome, the young Pontecorvo became accustomed to the fact that Fascist patronage to scientific research came on the condition that the scientists did not engage in political activities or publicly criticize the regime. He learned later on, while staying in France, about the scientists' social responsibilities and political participation.

This overlapping, contiguity, divergence, and collision of religion, science and politics created the social and cultural milieu in which Pontecorvo grew up, and it also shaped his experience as a young scientist after he left his hometown and moved to the fast-growing metropolises of Rome and Paris.

A Tuscan Clan in a Jewish Tribe

Bruno Pontecorvo was born in Marina di Pisa on 22 August 1913. He spent his childhood in nearby Pisa, the second largest city in Tuscany and a renowned port with a glorious past. His family's house was located on a street close to Piazza dei Miracoli, where Galileo Galilei had performed his famous experiments with falling bodies in the seventeenth century. Pontecorvo's family was large and wealthy, as it owned a textile company employing fifteen hundred workers. His grandfather Pellegrino Pontecorvo was a shrewd entrepreneur, credited to have innovated textile production by introducing the spinning jenny, a multispool spinning frame, in Italy. During World War I, the Italian Air Force made use of his company's textiles to produce stouter airplane wings.

Aside from being an eminent businessman, Pellegrino was an illustrious representative of his religious community. Following the establishment of Italy's kingdom in 1871, the Jews had been allowed out of ghettos, having been granted the right to actively participate in public life as a reward for their contribution to the struggle for the country's unification. Not only had the Pontecorvos actively participated in the emancipation of Italian Jewry, but they had also witnessed the pogroms of Eastern Europe and participated in international rescue operations.

This emancipation brought the Jews into public life, but it also had an impact on their religious identity. Religion continued to be important for many, yet secularism set in. For instance, Pellegrino continued officiating at traditional Jewish rituals in his family, but the younger family members' adherence was lukewarm. "We were Jewish without being aware of it," remarked Bruno's brother, the celebrated film-maker Gillo Pontecorvo. "We were a typical Jewish family of those times, gentrified and liberally educated. I've never experienced religious crises," recalled Bruno years later.

The circumstances of this Tuscan family illuminate the prosperity Bruno experienced in the early part of his life. He grew up as a bourgeois. A young teacher was paid to give him private lessons, and every summer the family would travel to exclusive holiday destinations such as the Dolomites and the Tyrrhenian Sea resorts. Bruno was only five years old when his grandfather Pellegrino died in 1918. The funeral was majestic, attended by political authorities and entrepreneurs who commemorated the patriarch. Following the recent Russian revolution, Italian workers were already clenching their fists at their employers. Yet no fights were recorded on the day laborers and industrialists alike mourned the late Cavaliere del Lavoro.

Massimo Pontecorvo, Bruno's father, inherited and expanded the family business. Together with his wife Maria Maroni, he had five sons and three daughters. As some of Massimo's sisters were married to other wealthy representatives of Jewish families, his own family became a small "clan" in a larger "tribe" that also included the Sereni and Colorni families. This tribe was a cohort that, according to the Italian journalist Miriam Mafai, became more "restless, sporty, and fashionable" in the troubled times that accompanied the establishment of a totalitarian regime in Italy.

Science or Politics? The Crucible in the Wake of Fascism

At the end of World War I, Italy was in a state of turmoil. National newspapers highlighted the fact that the country's representatives had returned empty-handed from the peace negotiations in Versailles. The shortcomings of Italian diplomacy in international politics combined with a steep rise in social conflict. Farmers and workers joined forces in a string of industrial actions typifying what historians have dubbed the "two red years." Between 1920 and 1922, the recently established Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d'Italia, or PCd'I) spearheaded a strong protest movement demanding better salaries and working conditions. A revolution seemed imminent. Yet the radicalization of the social conflict favored the newly established political organization led by former socialist Benito Mussolini, the Fascist National Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF). The March on Rome of 28 October 1922 marked the beginning of a new political season in the country, as Mussolini became prime minister.

The small Jewish community greeted Fascism with mixed feelings. For instance, Massimo Pontecorvo challenged a local Fascist leader and future mayor of Pisa, Guido Buffarini Guidi, when Guidi visited his factory with the intention of taking the names of those who had participated in a demonstration, including their prominent ringleader. Not only did Massimo refuse to expose the ringleader, but he invited the brash Guidi to a duel, seeking satisfaction for what he perceived as a personal offense. Bruno's father always refused to become a Fascist party member.

The advent of Fascism represented a watershed for the young members of the Jewish tribe. For some, including Bruno, it meant a renewed effort to get involved in higher education, partly to get away from political controversies. It is worth noting that since the time of their emancipation, Italian Jews had shown an aptitude for schooling and higher education that differentiated them from other sections of Italian society. 10 Not surprisingly, these scholars also represented the backbone of higher education in Italy. Bruno's elder brothers developed an interest in the sciences. Massimo's firstborn, Guido, studied agriculture at the University of Pisa, while Paolo opted for engineering at the Politechnique in Turin.

Other family members were resistant to accept Fascist rule, and this opposition made them more interested in practicing radical politics. This was especially the case for Bruno's cousins, who also undertook higher education courses but were far more exposed to political interests and tensions. One of them, Eugenio Colorni, began philosophy studies at the University of Milan and another, Emilio Sereni, opted for agronomy at the University of Naples. The latter exercised an important influence on Bruno's education and choices in later life. An intellectual animated by a wide range of interests from Marxism to agricultural science, Emilio was an avid reader of all kinds of literature who engaged in animated discussions on the merits of Henry Poincaré's positivism with a young Emilio Segrè, later to be Bruno's mentor. The two Emilios, Segrè and Sereni, went on to play key roles in Bruno's life, including the chain of events leading up to the move to Russia.

In 1927 Emilio Sereni joined the PCd'I, whereas Eugenio Colorni opted for the antifascist collective Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty). Emilio's brother Enzo became a Zionist and established the action group Avodah. He eventually migrated to Palestine and became a leader of the colonial kibbutz movement. These choices exposed Bruno's cousins to political persecution. In 1930 Emilio Sereni was arrested by the Fascist police. His father, Samuele, who was the physician to the royal family, used his professional connections to ask for an amnesty, but was unsuccessful in obtaining one. Eugenio Colorni was also arrested in 1938 and killed by Fascist militants in 1944.

Bruno was an adolescent when these political conflicts unfolded, and although he worried about the circumstances of other members of his tribe, he did not get involved. In fact he was known as the "sporty" family member (figure 1.1), because his skills as a tennis player had gained him a national trophy. Only scientific interests distracted him from mastering tennis. Following the path taken by his brother Paolo, he went to study engineering at the University of Pisa. Two years into these academic studies, he decided to go to Rome to study with a professor who by then had gained reputation in the Italian scientific community: Enrico Fermi. In so doing, Bruno joined one of the most prominent research units in the country—one that in fact had managed excellently to "tune in" with the regime's agenda for the development of science and technology.

A "New Deal" for Science in Fascist Italy

Fascism did not just radicalize first, and conflate afterwards, the struggle for political power; it also represented a significant transition to a new system of scientific policy-making. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Italy was a mix of different peoples and languages—a hodgepodge of cultures and technological systems without nationally structured railways or electrical networks. In this context, the establishment of a totalitarian regime allowed its leaders to address the country's underdevelopment by propelling research in some innovative areas, directing research toward issues that concerned national industry, and promoting a synergy between publicly funded research organizations and the private sector.

In 1923 the establishment of an Italian national research council—the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, or CNR—responded to the urgent need to develop a system of new national laboratories and schools of specialization that could tie academic and industrial research together. 15 In the mid-1920s the PNF's collaboration with the liberals helped party leaders to focus on science, technology, and industrial change. From the 1930s, state funding of scientific research grew markedly to respond to the world economic crisis.

In 1927 the CNR became a governmental organization directly depending on the chief of government, and Mussolini appointed the Bolognese inventor Guglielmo Marconi as its chairman. The decision was informed by a propagandist agenda, as Marconi was internationally renowned as a pioneer of radiotelegraphy—a true Italian genius. Yet Marconi was also chosen because of his dexterity in administering intellectual property rights. In the late nineteenth century he had succeeded in obtaining in London his patents on the wireless telegraph, and had established a new company, Marconi Wireless Telegraph, which accrued substantial revenues from monopolistic rights. Marconi's appointment made the Italian scientific community more alert to the industrial applications of science as well as to the filing of patents.

Working in collaboration with prominent science administrators such as the chemist Nicola Parravano (chairman of the CNR chemistry section), Marconi understood that Italian inventors filed fewer patent applications than their competitors in other countries. The number of new patents had increased between 1883 and 1913 but considerably dropped between 1913 and 1929, when Italy fell behind France, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland in its number of filed patents at home and abroad. This limitation was believed to affect the national economy, as Italy depended on the import of industrial products and processes. The CNR chairman's concern translated into the laying out of new legislation on patents and the adoption of new standards for their examination. On 20 October 1932 Marconi claimed in an article published by the PNF daily newspaper that the Fascist government had gone a long way in encouraging inventors, as shown by the new intellectual property legislation.

The Fascist administrators, through the CNR, were thus able to persuade large companies to invest in innovation and set up forms of collaboration with academic researchers in chemistry and metallurgy. For instance, the engineering of new ersatz materials such as alcohols, vegetable oils, and gases resulted from forms of private-public partnership. This was because industrial production in Italy improved markedly between 1922 and 1929, and in some sectors (e.g., car manufacturing and chemistry) export levels nearly doubled. Yet Italy's dependence on the import of raw materials continued to hinder economic development. The regime foresaw that a better administration of new inventions could help Italian researchers to engineer new production methods and address these limitations.

In the capital, the new science policy outlined by the Fascist regime overlapped the emergence of nuclear physics, thanks to the teaching and research activities of Enrico Fermi. Similarly to those of Marconi, Fermi's achievements captured the attention of the Italian press, which sought to exploit them propagandistically. Yet behind this image lay another important attempt to bind together scientific discovery, industrial innovation, and business activities through the search for novel methods to produce radioactive substances. When Bruno Pontecorvo moved to Rome to work with Fermi, he became accustomed to the importance of uniting the study of interesting and novel phenomena with the prospect of industrial advancement.


Excerpted from The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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