With the death of Professor Sir Mark Oliphant, the first President of the Australian Academy of Science, Australia lost one of its most distinguished scientists. A tall, handsome man with a shock of white hair and a distinctive voice and laugh, he was well informed on a wide range of scientific matters and expressed firm views on their social consequences. He enjoyed wide respect throughout the nation as a great Australian, his influence spreading far beyond the discipline of physics, to which he made seminal contributions both through his own research and his leadership. The Academy will remember and honour him for his leading role in its establishment, and for his continuing association with it until the last years of his long life.
Oliphant's outstanding international reputation was based on his pioneering discoveries in nuclear physics in Cambridge in the 1930s and his remarkable contributions to wartime radar research and to the development of the atomic bomb. In 1950, after an absence of 23 years, Oliphant returned to Australia, where he founded the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University and pioneered the creation in Canberra of a national university dedicated to the conduct of research at the highest international level.
To the layman, Mark Oliphant was well known for his often outspoken comments on those matters about which he felt so strongly: social justice, peace, atomic warfare, the environment, academic freedom and autonomy, to name a few. The scientific community will remember him as a physicist for his pioneering experiments with Ernest Rutherford during momentous years that saw the birth of nuclear physics, as a physicist/engineer for his ingenuity and determination as one of the pioneers of high-energy particle accelerators, and as a science administrator and public advocate for science.
Marcus (he later called himself Mark) Laurence Elwin Oliphant was born on 8 October 1901 at Kent Town, an inner suburb of Adelaide, the first-born of the five sons of Harold Oliphant and Beatrice Oliphant (née Tucker). Harold (known as 'Baron' within the family) had eventually followed his own father's footsteps and become a clerk in the South Australian public service. Beatrice had been a schoolteacher. With a small income for such a large household, the family lived carefully, with moves from one rented house to another as its number grew.
Mark began primary school at Goodwood at the age of 8, but not long afterwards the family moved to Mylor in the Adelaide Hills, which was, for Mark, a delightful place in which to grow and learn. There he attended a one-teacher school with about 25 students. The master, Mr McCaffrey, was 'an Irishman and a marvellous teacher' whose influence, Mark later asserted, had been part of the backbone of his education. In 1914, a move back to the Adelaide suburbs became necessary when the time came for Mark to attend secondary school, first Unley High School and then, for his final year, the premier public school in the State, Adelaide High School.
Mark's scholastic achievements at high school gave little inkling of the distinguished scientific career to follow, but his inventiveness and his remarkable ability to 'make and do' blossomed during these senior school years and provided evidence of talents more predictive of his future research performance. Both schools were the beneficiaries of these talents. Accompanying an application in 1918 for a position with the Advisory Council of Science and Industry (a predecessor of CSIR) was a list of complex apparatus and delicate instrumentation Mark had constructed for his own and the schools' use. The list included a Wimshurst machine, Tesla coil, Kelvin's quadrant electrometer, Kelvin's reflecting galvanometer, organ pipe, siren, automatic tuning fork and more – an amazing list of achievements for a student of 17 who would have had very limited facilities at his disposal.
Whether or not these talents would have flourished under any circumstances, there is no doubt they were greatly encouraged by one of his most precious possessions at that time, his own underground 'laboratory' at the family's new home in Mitcham. It was his alone for study and experimentation and was given to him when the family moved to its new home when he was about 12. By that time he had already shown a remarkable aptitude with his hands, a skill he retained and honed throughout his life. During these formative years Mark responded to complementary influences from his parents. He inherited his strong sense of social justice and morality from his father, who was a deeply religious and sensitive man, although dogmatic religion, including Christianity, became anathema to him. From his mother came a love of reading and learning and a practical approach to life. Both clearly encouraged his inquiring and inventive mind as evidenced by the 'holy of holies' reserved for him in the Mitcham house. Nothing would have pleased his father more if he had elected to enter the Anglican priesthood, although Mark's early aspirations leant towards medicine. In the event it was to be neither.
Mark left school in 1918, all of his secondary schooling having been spent during the years of the First World War. Tertiary education without financial backing from the family was open to very few, certainly not to him. He did not win one of the twelve State Government bursaries then offered (still the only 'free' tertiary education available until after 1945), so he looked for a job. He worked for a time for an Adelaide jeweller and applied unsuccessfully for a number of other positions. Eventually he obtained a cadetship at the South Australian Public Library. The work was uninspiring, but it did at least enable him to take a couple of subjects at the University of Adelaide at night, and thus, in 1919, to cross the threshold of his academic career.
Chemistry and physics soon captured him. Then, in his second year of part-time study, an opportunity arose which was undoubtedly a turning point in his life. He accepted a cadetship in the Physics Department under Professor (later Sir) Kerr Grant, thus giving him not only free tuition and a minute income but also an intimate connection with the department and its academic staff of three. Since his first year physics result was undistinguished, it is not clear how he obtained the position. Kerr Grant may have been aware of Oliphant's ingenuity and facility with apparatus, and seen an opportunity for skilled help with the lecture demonstrations for which Kerr Grant was renowned. Whatever the reason, Mark flourished in the job, taking out a First Class Honours degree in physics in 1923.
As Kerr Grant's 'laboratory assistant' (so recorded by the university's 1926 Calendar) Mark Oliphant's stature in his employer's eyes steadily grew. In a letter to the chairman of the university's finance committee, which sought increases in Oliphant's salary over two years to £400 a year, a sum approaching that of a Lecturer, Kerr Grant wrote:
Such a man as Mr Oliphant, who understands and can handle the great variety of instruments and apparatus of a physics laboratory, is more essential to the working of this department than a mere assistant.
Kerr Grant's recognition in that same letter of Mark's 'remarkable technical skill' explains why he wanted to exploit his talent to the full rather than use his other talents only on the more routine tasks of lecturing and demonstrating. The records show that he did in fact do both, teaching at all levels of undergraduate physics.
The offer of the cadetship was Oliphant's first break. The second came when Kerr Grant took sabbatical leave in 1927 and Mark then became responsible to the acting departmental head, R.S. (Roy) Burdon. Kerr Grant had a brilliant mind and inspired his students, Mark included. With great enthusiasm, he initiated research on numerous topics that interested him, but often could not pursue them to conclusion. Burdon's approach was different and, through careful research, he became highly respected for his work on surface tension, a project that Oliphant had joined earlier.
Oliphant and Burdon continued their collaborative work on mercury surfaces, a line of investigation suggested earlier to Burdon by Kerr Grant and with which Oliphant had been assisting Burdon. Their work led to joint publications in Nature, Transactions of the Faraday Society and to Mark's first solo publication in Philosophical Magazine. Undoubtedly, it was this work that played a significant part in securing for Oliphant one of the 1851 Exhibition scholarships for 1927, satisfying as it did one of the criteria of the award that the candidate should possess 'proven capacity for original work'. Burdon had often expressed his high opinion of Oliphant's experimental ability in later years; Kerr Grant's was enthusiastically expressed in his letter of support to the commissioners for the scholarship:
Mr Oliphant possesses, in fact, an altogether unusual aptitude for the technical side of physics and a remarkable gift for manipulation...While I thus emphasize [his] ability and experience in the field of practical physics I do not wish to give the impression that he is a mere technician. On the contrary, his knowledge of theoretical physics is both wide and thorough – as his interest is strong – and amply sufficient to guide him in the choice of problems for research...As proof of his interest and capability in theoretical physics I may mention that in letters received from him since my departure (on sabbatical leave)...he tells me that he has been reading the very difficult papers of Schrödinger and others on the new 'Wave mechanics' of atomic processes.
The award of the prestigious and valuable '1851' enabled Oliphant to realise an ambition to work with the New Zealand-born Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford, then Director of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. The ambition had had its origin some two years earlier when Rutherford had briefly visited Adelaide en route from New Zealand and Mark had been 'electrified' by him. That year, 1925, was a momentous year for him. Not only did it mark his first encounter with the man who had the most profound influence on his scientific career and with whom he was to make his greatest scientific contributions, but it was also the year in which he married his beloved wife, Rosa Wilbraham, who was to be his companion for more than sixty years.
Rutherford's aura had an immediate impact on Oliphant. According to his later accounts '[Rutherford's] work fascinated me, and I determined that I would work under him, if this was at all possible'. It was now possible, and late in 1927 Mark and Rosa left Adelaide for England and Cambridge. It was to be 23 years before they returned to their homeland permanently.
Oliphant arrived in Cambridge in October 1927. Having already secured a place in Trinity College, he sought a meeting with Rutherford to propose a research programme that he had prepared. Although his proposal may not have been of direct interest to Rutherford, it would have interested his predecessor, J.J. Thomson, who was still working in the Cavendish Laboratory at that time. Recounting that first interview later, Oliphant wrote:
I told him of my wish to do some work on the effect on metal surfaces of bombardment by positive ions, if he thought that would fit well into the program of the laboratory, and I handed him a paper I had written on the adsorption of gases on a freshly prepared surface of pure mercury. He went over the proposal and agreed that I should do as I wished.
This topic was certainly of interest to Thomson, whose beneficial influence Oliphant freely acknowledged. Oliphant and Thomson worked as near neighbours in the laboratory and Oliphant gained confidence in his own experimental skills from his first sight of Thomson's apparatus, which convinced him that he 'could do better glass-blowing than J.J.'s assistants were able to accomplish'.
Oliphant's PhD thesis displayed his ingenuity and dexterity in constructing apparatus. In scale, his experiments were more ambitious than those of his Adelaide days, but still small compared with the work he began with Rutherford in 1932. The experiments were mainly concerned with the impact of positive ions on metal surfaces. Calling on his experience with mercury surfaces in Adelaide, Oliphant took extreme care in the preparation of his metal surfaces, adopting meticulous vacuum and surface preparation techniques. Two years after presenting his research plan to Rutherford, Oliphant submitted his PhD thesis on The Neutralization of Positive Ions at Metal Surfaces, and the Emission of Secondary Electrons, and was awarded the degree in December 1929.
Oliphant completed his PhD at a time when the staff of the Cavendish Laboratory, led by Rutherford, were famous for their fundamental discoveries about atomic structure and their pioneering development of the new science of nuclear physics. Oliphant delighted in the exalted scientific company in which he found himself. The following list of Nobel Prize winners (by year of award) shows the remarkable strength of the Cavendish staff of the 1930s: J.J. Thomson (1906); Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry, 1908); Francis W. Aston (Chemistry, 1922); Charles T.R. Wilson (1927); James Chadwick, Rutherford's deputy (1935); Edward V. Appleton (1947); Patrick M. Blackett (1948); John D. Cockcroft (1951), who became Oliphant's life-long friend and a future Chancellor of the Australian National University (ANU); Ernest T.S. Walton (also 1951); and the ebullient Russian, Pyotr ('Peter') L. Kapitza (1978), founder of the 'Kapitza Club' discussion group.
Oliphant shared a room in the Cavendish Laboratory with P.B. (Philip) Moon, who later joined him in Birmingham. Following his PhD work, Oliphant had a brief foray into isotope separation, his interest then being to determine which of the isotopes of potassium was radioactive. Although he soon moved from isotope separation to transmutation by accelerated particles, the techniques that he learnt were crucial to his work with Rutherford on the disintegration of lithium under proton or deuteron bombardment and, later, in the separation of the isotopes of uranium.
In the history of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1932 is often called the annus mirabilis, when major new discoveries made it possible to explore the atomic nucleus using the model that had been proposed by Rutherford long before he was appointed to the Cavendish Chair. Led by Rutherford, the staff of the Cavendish Laboratory began to lay the foundations for the new science of nuclear physics.
Chadwick's discovery of the neutron, an uncharged particle of similar mass to the proton, confirmed Rutherford's suspicion (or long-held vision) that the nucleus was made up, not of protons and electrons, but of protons and neutrons. Nuclear structure was explored in more detail by Cockcroft and Walton, who showed how to break open the nuclei of 'light' target elements such as lithium and boron to release showers of particles such as protons and helium nuclei that were smaller than the nuclei of the target elements. To do that, Cockcroft and Walton had bombarded the nuclei with streams of protons accelerated to great speeds by high electrical voltages. The 'particle accelerator' they built for this purpose was a sign of the future of nuclear physics, in which new discoveries would depend less on the 'string and sealing wax' for which the Cavendish Laboratory was noted, and more on applications of heavy electrical engineering.
Rutherford was none too enthusiastic about the new methodology but nevertheless quickly recruited the inventive and technically adept Oliphant to design and build a similar machine on which the two of them could work together. Assembled in a basement, Oliphant's accelerator used lower voltages than Cockcroft and Walton's, but higher currents, which provided a greater flux of protons to bring about the 'splitting' or 'disintegration' of the atomic nucleus. Oliphant and his research team were soon able to confirm what Cockcroft and Walton had found.
In the summer of 1933, the Cavendish Laboratory obtained a few drops of the precious 'heavy water', newly discovered by the American chemist G.N. Lewis of the University of California at Berkeley. Heavy water contained 'heavy hydrogen', the nucleus of which held a neutron as well as a proton. A team of physicists at Berkeley, led by E.O. (Ernest) Lawrence, had begun to use the heavy hydrogen nuclei, which they called 'deutons' (later to be called 'deuterons') to bombard light nuclei as Cockcroft and Walton had first done with their linear high-tension accelerator. The Berkeley team used Lawrence's recently invented cyclotron to accelerate the projectile particles by sending them many times around a circular track and adding an energy increment with each circuit.
Oliphant and Rutherford were soon using deuterons (which the Cavendish Laboratory called 'diplons') in similar experiments, with the particles as both missiles and targets (replacing ordinary hydrogen in certain compounds), but the plentiful disintegrations yielded puzzling results. The Berkeley team saw them as well, and argued that the deuterons were unstable and broke up on impact. At the Cavendish Laboratory they thought differently, arguing that when two deuterons collide, they momentarily fuse into a helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons) before breaking apart again into two previously unknown particles. Some disintegrations yielded a hydrogen nucleus with two neutrons (hydrogen-3, 3H) plus a free proton, others a helium nucleus with only one neutron (helium-3 , 3He) plus a free neutron. Neither 3H nor 3He had previously been known to exist, but proof enough was provided by the Cavendish experiments to convince the Berkeley team. Correspondence between Lawrence and Oliphant on this research was the beginning of a friendship that was crucial in the coming war years.
The early 1930s were the most productive of Oliphant's career as a pure researcher in nuclear physics, but his recognition of the investment needed to make further experimental advances in nuclear physics was a sign of things to come. With a reputation established by two versions of the 'basement' accelerator, Oliphant was set to work by Rutherford overseeing the building of two new high- voltage machines (the famous HT1 and HT2 sets) that were paid for by a gift from Lord Nuffield. Rutherford saw the money as more trouble than it was worth; others, however, including Oliphant, knew that big and expensive equipment was the only way forward.
Oliphant and Rutherford carried out fundamental work on nuclear transmutations. They had complementary talents, with Oliphant's inventiveness and technical skills matching Rutherford's seemingly inspired knowledge of possible nuclear processes. Oliphant's research achievements at the Cavendish Laboratory are summarised in the following citation supporting his election to the Royal Society of London:
[Oliphant is] distinguished for his experimental researches on the action of positive ions on surfaces and for his contribution to our knowledge of transmutations. [He] has been active in the design of high voltage apparatus for the production of swift positive ions and has taken a responsible part in experiments which show that two new isotopes, hydrogen three and helium three, were produced by the bombardment of deuterium by deuterons. He has made an accurate study of the modes of transmutation of lithium, beryllium and boron by the action of protons and deuterons, and determined the masses of the light elements.
Oliphant was elected to the Royal Society in 1937. His work on nuclear reactions with the isotopes of hydrogen and helium was particularly important and forms the basis for the production of nuclear fusion energy, which is still one of the holy grails of energy research. At the time of his death, Oliphant was by far the longest-serving Fellow of the Royal Society, having carried the honour for over sixty years.
In 1935, Chadwick left the Cavendish Laboratory, having accepted the Chair of Physics at the University of Liverpool. In his place, Oliphant was appointed Assistant Director of Research and became Rutherford's deputy for experimental work throughout the Cavendish Laboratory. He was also a Fellow of St John's College, with a share in the annual College dividend, and a College Lecturer, earning fees for tutorial and other teaching duties. Taken together, the various income strands provided a comfortable living for Mark and Rosa that was well above the near penury in which they had lived in their early days in Cambridge. Mark's research achievements had been rewarded, but no amount of financial success could make up for the loss of their three-year-old son, Geoffrey, who had died of meningitis in 1933 while Mark was travelling in Europe with his father.
One by one, the old Cavendish team was moving on. Chadwick had gone to Liverpool, Blackett to London and Kapitza was back in Russia. Rutherford's successor would be another Nobel Prize winner, W. Lawrence Bragg, eminent in solid-state physics rather than the inner workings of the atom. Cockcroft was still there, but the central role of the Cavendish Laboratory in nuclear physics was beginning to pass to others, notably Lawrence's team in Berkeley.
Oliphant had done excellent work with Rutherford in Cambridge but, like so many others from the old Cavendish Laboratory, he wanted to 'run his own show' and, in 1937, despite Rutherford's strong initial objections, Oliphant accepted the Poynting Chair of Physics at the University of Birmingham.
Oliphant moved to Birmingham in early autumn of 1937 but, within weeks of his arrival, Rutherford died, suddenly and unexpectedly, from the effects of hernial damage resulting from a fall from a tree in his garden in Cambridge. Oliphant heard the news in Italy while attending the Galvani Bicentenary celebrations. He felt keenly the loss of the man who had had such a great influence on his own career.
In his new surroundings in Birmingham, Oliphant was determined to continue the Cavendish tradition of research in experimental nuclear physics. He had bargained hard with his new employers to boost the resources supporting research, but he was planning to build the largest cyclotron in Europe and much more money would be needed. With support from the new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, whose family had strong links to the University – the Chamberlain Tower dominated the campus landscape – Oliphant and his supporters gained the patronage of Lord Nuffield, maker of the popular Morris cars. Nuffield provided a sum of £60,000 (ca A$4 million today), enough for the cyclotron, a building to house it and a trip for Oliphant to Berkeley to see Ernest Lawrence.
Oliphant had met Lawrence, the second of the 'two Ernests' who were such an influence on him, only once before, in 1933, at a meeting of the Kapitza Club. They had, however, been in close correspondence in connection with the Cambridge experiments using heavy hydrogen. Oliphant visited Berkeley in December 1938. He and Lawrence had much in common and became good friends. Lawrence generously offered help with the Birmingham cyclotron, which would be a close copy of the one he was then building in Berkeley, and his staff, notably Don Cooksey, provided advice and copies of blueprints of their machine.
With massive resources at his disposal, Lawrence made rapid progress. His new cyclotron was on-line late in 1939, producing 10 MeV (million electron volt) protons, and the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics crowned his year. Oliphant saw in the award a vindication of the efforts he and others were making to develop new methods to accelerate particles. He wrote to Lawrence in November:
...the Prize shows that the technical side of the subject is now recognised as of equal importance to the advances that follow from the use of these techniques and, more important, I hope, than the theories which attempt to explain them.
Oliphant's year had not gone so well. War had broken out in September, with his machine well short of completion. Delays had piled up, including those resulting from an accident when two of his team had legs crushed by a falling steel plate. Many of his senior colleagues were indifferent to his plans, and more and more of his time was spent away from the project, dealing with crucial matters of national defence.
The defence matters concerned what was known at the time as RDF (Radio Direction Finding), which became 'Radio Location', and is now universally known as 'Radar' (radio detection and ranging). Since 1935, a growing team of scientists and technicians, working in secret, had taken RDF from a simple principle to a network of radar stations called Chain Home, dotted along the south and east coasts of Britain, able to detect approaching aircraft. They were also a source of mystery to the local public. The system, however, was unreliable and seriously in need of development and refinement.
Oliphant was made privy to the secret in the autumn of 1938. He was soon to realise that the limitations of existing RDF were largely attributable to the wavelengths of the radiation used, 10 metres or more. Finding ways of generating powerful radio waves of a metre or less in wavelength were needed, ways that might also allow the production of equipment small and lightweight enough to be fitted into aircraft.
Existing magnetrons were low-power laboratory devices, as were the klystrons recently invented by Stanford University scientists. Oliphant used his visit to Lawrence to learn more about generating useful amounts of power at very short wavelengths.
In the last months before the outbreak of war, John Cockcroft took charge of recruiting more than 80 physicists from universities across the country, including Oliphant and others from the old Cavendish network, to bolster research on RDF. Oliphant led his team of eight or ten, all from Birmingham, to a Chain Home station at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, to discover more about how RDF worked and how to make it work better.
When war was declared, the team moved back to Birmingham, a few at a time. Oliphant then succeeded in securing for the team a contract from the Admiralty to identify or invent the best possible generators and detectors of microwaves. He broke his team into groups, each with different responsibilities. He and James Sayers concentrated on improving the design of the klystron and by early in the following year had produced a new style of klystron producing about 400 watts (W) at a wavelength of 7 cm.
In the meantime, two members of his team, J.T. (John) Randall and H.A.H. (Harry) Boot, worked on the primitive magnetron. From unpromising and frustrating beginnings, they went back to first principles and, in November 1939, produced plans for a new form of magnetron, the 'resonant cavity' magnetron. Oliphant obtained some further funding from the Admiralty to build a demonstration model. On 21 February 1940, the first model, crafted from a solid block of copper, poured out half a kilowatt at a wavelength of 9.8 cm, right on target. By June 1940, the first sealed-off cavity magnetrons were available for use in RDF sets that could detect aircraft and surface ships. Rapid improvements increased the power to 25 kW pulses, making it possible for an airborne set to detect the periscope of a submarine. Subsequent 'strapping' of the cavity magnetron by Sayers increased the power to 50 kW. The General Electric Co. had assisted in its refinement and the operational testing was handed over to the RDF development teams at Swanage and elsewhere.
The power of the klystron did not equal that of the cavity magnetron, but continued improvement of design produced reliable, robust, compact klystrons that were essential for the local oscillators in the heterodyne microwave receivers of the signals reflected from the target.
Thousands of magnetrons and klystrons were produced by the radio valve manufacturers in England and then in the United States, where the designs, which had been provided from England, were further improved for use in American-produced radar sets. Oliphant himself relayed much of the detailed information on the design and production to America. He crossed the Atlantic several times in the bomb bays of aircraft, his only provisions being the packs of sandwiches that Rosa had cut, a thermos of coffee, and a bundle of blankets.
Oliphant's influence, overall, was immense. He inspired the various groups of his team and gave them their leads. He made the contacts, found the funds and resources, and led the whole team on a dozen projects with passion, vigour and an endless supply of good ideas, many of which worked. The pace of work was furious, especially when war came, but he remained with them totally immersed in the task.
The fall of Singapore in February 1942 prompted a swift reaction in Oliphant. He, like others, saw Australia as under threat from the advancing Japanese and he immediately arranged to return home. The move was hasty and unrewarding, if well intentioned. The trip by troopship took two and a half months, but did reunite him with his family, whom he had sent to Adelaide early in the war for safety. The worst of the blitz now over, they returned to England together, with the journey by sea lasting four months!
A number of widely reported pre-war experiments had raised the possibility that energy stored in uranium atoms could be used to produce a bomb of unprecedented power. Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann, working in Berlin, had studied transmutations produced by neutron bombardment of the elements. Generally, as had been shown by Enrico Fermi, neutron bombardment led to the formation of the element with the next highest atomic number, but the results obtained by bombarding the heaviest element, uranium, could not be understood simply in terms of formation of transuranic elements. Following Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938, Meitner, an Austrian Jew, fled to Holland and then to Scandinavia. Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann continued their collaboration by correspondence. When Hahn tried to explain their uranium work in terms of transuranics, Meitner insisted on re-examination of the experimental results, which showed that barium, not radium, was the main transmutation product. She suggested that the whole uranium nucleus had been split by neutron bombardment, with a massive release of stored nuclear energy. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, gave the first theoretical account of this process, which they called 'nuclear fission'.
By April 1939, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in Paris, had shown that an average of three neutrons were left over from each fission, able, at least in theory, to stimulate other fissions and so begin a chain reaction. Oliphant, aware of these developments, turned his attention to the possibility of releasing large amounts of energy by the fission of uranium.
Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls were émigrés from Germany who had been invited by Oliphant to come to Birmingham, where Peierls was appointed to the new Chair of Applied Mathematics. Frisch had made outstanding personal contributions to understanding the fission process. Because of their foreign origin, they were excluded from participation in the secret radar programme, but not from work on nuclear fission, nor, indeed, from consideration of the practicality of constructing nuclear weaponry. The presence in Birmingham of both Frisch and Peierls greatly strengthened the fission work that Oliphant now wished to encourage.
Two major questions needed to be answered to decide if an atomic bomb could be built. Would the chain reaction be fast enough to be explosive and, given that some neutrons would always escape, what critical mass of uranium would be needed to sustain the reaction? Initial calculations and experiments indicated that with natural uranium the reaction would be so slow that the critical mass would be measured in tonnes. The military value appeared to be minimal.
Oliphant's old Cavendish roommate Philip Moon had joined the staff at Birmingham after a time at Imperial College with G.P. (George) Thomson (son of J.J.), trying without success to start a chain reaction in uranium. Oliphant used his RDF contacts at the Air Ministry to secure one ton of uranium oxide that allowed Moon to continue this work, but results remained negative.
Natural uranium consists of a mixture of 235U and 238U, with only the lighter isotope, 235U, being fissionable by slow neutrons. In a crucial memorandum, Frisch and Peierls proposed 'enriching' the uranium by increasing the proportion of 235U. They calculated that a chain reaction in only a few tens of kilograms of fully enriched uranium would be violently explosive, equal to hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of TNT.
Oliphant used his contacts to bring the Frisch-Peierls memorandum to the attention of Whitehall, notably Sir Henry Tizard, Chief Scientist to the Air Ministry. The British effort to build an 'atomic bomb', initially code-named M.A.U.D. and later 'Tube Alloys' or 'TA', arose from their proposal.
Oliphant reached back to his Cambridge work on potassium in an effort to separate the uranium isotopes using electromagnetism. Elsewhere, other methods were being tried, but it was soon clear that the massive effort needed to build the bomb was beyond hard-pressed Britain. The necessary technical and industrial resources lay in the United States, where Albert Einstein, spurred by Leo Szilard, had already tried to alert the US Government to the threat that Germany might have the weapon first.
During his 1941 visit to the United States to promote 'strapping' the magnetron, Oliphant was shocked to find that work there on the atomic bomb appeared to be at a standstill, with crucial reports from M.A.U.D. lying unread. His response was typical; he stirred up his good friend and collaborator Ernest Lawrence, who in turn convinced key people in US science and government of the need for action. The British atomic energy group eventually transferred to the USA and Canada. Oliphant took his team of mostly Birmingham people to Berkeley to work on electromagnetic separation of isotopes with Lawrence's people. This work helped produce the bomb that was to level Hiroshima. Oliphant's skilful and determined arguments, and his friendship with Lawrence, were important factors in the establishment of the Manhattan Project. He was deeply concerned that any delay in the Project could increase the risk that Germany might build the first atomic bomb; and he was both a persuasive speaker and a persistent advocate. When told, for example, that insufficient high conductivity copper was available to wind the coils for the electromagnetic separators, Oliphant succeeded in convincing the US Treasury to release 14,000 tons of silver from Fort Knox, to be used instead of copper!
By mid-1945, Oliphant was back in Birmingham, looking to tasks beyond the war. His attitude to the atomic bomb at the time was clear. Writing to Manhattan Project Director, General Leslie Groves two weeks before the weapon was first tested, he said:
If the imminent first step proves as successful as I believe it must, we will see a complete vindication of the faith of those of us who have fostered this revolutionary undertaking and, incidentally, a great demonstration of the practical value of academic nuclear physics.
He was less enthusiastic after Hiroshima. After favouring a non-lethal demonstration of the weapon's power (as had a number of the other Project scientists), he was horrified by its use against civilians, and thereafter actively opposed the military use of nuclear power. His activities inevitably brought him into conflict with the authorities, whose perception of him may lie behind an apparent refusal of a visa to visit the United States in the early 1950s.
International control of nuclear weapons was one of the most important problems facing the newly formed United Nations (UN) in 1946. Australia's Prime Minister, J.B. Chifley, on a visit to England at the time, invited Oliphant to join the Australian delegation to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission (UNAEC), led by Dr H.V. Evatt, the Australian Minister for External Affairs. Oliphant welcomed the opportunity to participate in the resolution of an issue about which he held strong views, and joined George Briggs of CSIR as a technical adviser to Evatt.
Oliphant also (like Bertrand Russell, Cockcroft, Blackett and many others) became a zealous champion of the 'peaceful atom', publicly endorsing a vision of a future transformed by cheap nuclear power from the atom. He contributed to advancing its cause when he led the Australian delegation to the first UN Conferences on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in 1955 and 1958. In time though, his attitude changed, as the many issues surrounding nuclear power emerged.
Oliphant's membership of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs provided him with a less formal but nonetheless influential forum in which to express his strongly held views against war of any kind. As one of the 22 founding members of Pugwash, comprising eminent scientists drawn from 10 countries, many Nobel Laureates among their number, Oliphant found a group with which he formed strong kinship. Founded in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, it had as its proclaimed aims the
...bring[ing] together, from around the world, influential scholars and public figures concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking cooperative solutions for global problems. Meeting in private as individuals, rather than as representatives of governments or institutions, Pugwash participants exchange[d] views and explore[d] alternative approaches to arms control and tension-reduction with a combination of cando[u]r, continuity, and flexibility seldom attained in official East-West and North-South discussions and negotiations.
Both its aims and its modus operandi appealed greatly to Oliphant's strong attraction to internationalism and his desire to cut through hypocrisy and cant based on nationalism and political alignment.
Following the inaugural conference in 1957 in Canada, entitled Appraisal of Dangers from Atomic Weapons, Oliphant attended seven other conferences during the next twenty years, preparing or presenting papers at many of them. In 1967 he was one of the organisers of the first South-East Asian Regional Pugwash Conference in Melbourne.
In 1995, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, in two equal parts, to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and to Joseph Rotblat, the Conference's most prominent member.
Oliphant's involvement in, and enthusiasm for, Pugwash illustrates one of his passionately held views, namely his opposition to war. Whether or not this often- expressed opposition resulted from his horror at the first use of the bomb he helped develop, he described himself in later life
as a belligerent pacifist, who recognises that violence and inhumanity cannot be banished from human behaviour by passive means, but must be suppressed by universal law and order which is rigidly enforced in the interests of justice for all.
It was a theme to which he often returned.
In later years, the thought of hydrogen and deuterium as power sources intrigued Oliphant, both through nuclear fusion (using the reactions he had discovered more than twenty years before at the Cavendish Laboratory), and as a chemical fuel in a 'hydrogen economy'.
In 1980, Stewart Cockburn, one of Oliphant's biographers, found among declassified secret records in the United States National Archives in Washington, a citation for the conferring on Oliphant of the highest award that can be granted to foreigners by the US Government, namely, the Congressional Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm. The award was proposed for Oliphant's brilliance in conceiving, developing and perfecting the cavity magnetron (an incorrect attribution), his 'outstanding contributions in the development of the atomic bomb' and his immeasurable contribution 'to the success of the Allied war effort'. Oliphant was not apprised of the proposed award. Other archival material revealed that the Australian Government of the time could not agree to the acceptance by Australian citizens of awards of another Government. Thus, the proposed award was cancelled.
Back in Birmingham, with the war not quite won, Oliphant resumed his work on particle accelerators. In 1939, with funding from Birmingham University and Lord Nuffield, he had commenced the construction of a 60-inch cyclotron that was very similar in design to Ernest Lawrence's accelerator in Berkeley. The construction of this machine, which would be the largest cyclotron in Europe and the second largest in the world, was, in itself, a major project for the University.
Simultaneously with resuming construction of the cyclotron, Oliphant considered other types of particle accelerator that might provide higher energies than could be obtained using cyclotrons alone. He was particularly interested in the proton synchrotron, a radically different particle accelerator, which had been suggested independently during the war by Oliphant and by E.M. McMillan in the USA and by V.I. Veksler in the Soviet Union. No detailed design studies had been made, but the principle of the proton synchrotron was to confine the particles to a fixed orbit by varying the magnetic field as batches of particles were accelerated. At the same time, the frequency of the applied accelerating electric field had to change in such a way as to maintain synchronism with the accelerating particles, and to compensate for relativistic effects. The restricted path meant that the circular pole pieces of the cyclotron could be replaced by a ring of magnets, with a great saving in materials and costs.
Oliphant was the first to request and receive funds to construct a proton synchrotron. In January 1945, while still in the USA, he requested funds from Tube Alloys (the UK uranium project) to construct, in England, a 1 GeV (or 1000 million electron volts) proton synchrotron. By July of that year, £200,000 had been allocated for his synchrotron project, an immense sum in postwar Britain. Oliphant justified the spending on the grounds that the new understanding of nuclear physics that the machine would bring might open up new sources of energy.
In the immediate postwar period Oliphant attracted a number of Australian and New Zealand research students to work with him in Birmingham. One of these was John Gooden from Adelaide, who arrived in Birmingham in 1946 and was very interested in the proposed new particle accelerator. Other early recruits to Birmingham who had a long-term involvement with Oliphant's accelerator projects included J.W. (Jack) Blamey from Melbourne, L.U. (Len) Hibbard from Sydney, and W.I.B. (Wibs) Smith from Adelaide. Gooden had worked on radar research at CSIR in Sydney during the war and began to work with Oliphant on detailed synchrotron designs. They made good progress with these studies and, by 1947, Oliphant was able to undertake to construct the world's first proton synchrotron in Birmingham. The Birmingham synchrotron would, at 10-second intervals, accelerate protons to an energy level of 1 GeV, or one hundred times the maximum energy of existing cyclotrons. At the same time, work continued on the construction of the Birmingham cyclotron.
With his Chair in Birmingham and his well-established laboratory on the international conference circuit, as shown by the distinguished attendance at the Birmingham 1947 International Theoretical Physics Conference, Oliphant would seem to have been ideally located to participate in the postwar expansion in nuclear and particle physics research. His reputation as one of the world's leading accelerator physicists, together with the facilities he was constructing in Birmingham, would have given him a central position in the rapidly developing field of high-energy particle physics. Moreover, during the war he and his research groups had made major contributions to the development of the magnetron for airborne radar and to the initiation of research on the atomic bomb. Taken together with his earlier research in nuclear physics, particularly his work with Rutherford on nuclear reactions among the isotopes of hydrogen and helium, Oliphant was ideally placed to lead a well-equipped laboratory carrying out experimental research at the forefront of modern physics.
All this had not gone unnoticed, and Oliphant now faced a dilemma. His eminence as a research director led to his receiving a number of tempting offers at this time, including a recommendation from Cockcroft for the Jacksonian Chair of Physics in Cambridge, an offer of a tenured post with Lawrence in Berkeley, and the founding Directorship of the ANU Research School of Physical Sciences. His scientific achievements and leadership prowess would have impressed any search committee.
The possibility of attracting Oliphant back to Australia was being discussed in Canberra, where H.C. 'Nugget' Coombs, Douglas 'Pansy' Wright, Alfred Conlon and others were planning a national research university that would, in the words of the 1946 ANU Act, 'provide facilities for postgraduate research and study both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia'. The university, at least initially, would contain four research schools, including one in medical research, one in physical sciences and two in the social sciences. Coombs and his fellow planners sought advice about the scope and structure of the research schools from distinguished Australian expatriates who were well established in leading overseas institutions, mainly in the UK, and who might, as directors, provide leadership for the new research schools. Coombs asked Harrie Massey, a distinguished Australian theoretical physicist at University College London, for advice about a research school of physical sciences that concentrated on theoretical problems. Massey was not enthusiastic about this proposal since he considered that, in the postwar period, the most interesting opportunities for major scientific advances were in experimental rather than theoretical physics. Consequently, if the research were to be mainly limited to theoretical topics, it would be very difficult to create a research school at international standards in the physical sciences. Massey suggested that an approach should be made to Oliphant but warned that, if Australia wished to attract leading scientists in Oliphant's field, it would need to provide adequate resources, including expensive laboratory facilities like those in the USA and Europe.
Coombs arranged for Oliphant to meet Australian Prime Minister Chifley in 1946 when Chifley and his advisers were in London for the first postwar Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting. The meeting was of great importance for the ANU. It began with a 'walk in the park', followed by dinner at the Savoy Hotel attended by Massey, Coombs, Dr H.V. Evatt and other members of the Prime Minister's party. Oliphant, we are told, was at his spellbinding best. He spoke about the atomic bomb and the strategic implications of a world dominated by nuclear weapons. He was enthusiastic about the peaceful uses of nuclear power, especially the benefits of unlimited sources of energy for nuclear desalination. He foresaw Australia at the forefront of nuclear research. Oliphant told Chifley that, for the first five years, he needed £500,000 or more to set up the type of physics school he had in mind. This was more than four times the amount originally suggested to Cabinet, but Chifley told Coombs 'If you can persuade Oliphant to head the school we will do whatever is necessary'. Oliphant was enthusiastic about Chifley's attitude towards the new university and agreed to join Howard Florey, Keith Hancock and Raymond Firth on the ANU Academic Advisory Committee in the United Kingdom.
Of the four advisers, only Oliphant accepted the appointment as founding Director of his School. In his 50th year, he had to face the dilemma of choosing between remaining in Birmingham, with its partly complete accelerators, and founding a new nuclear physics laboratory in Canberra with sufficient government support to be internationally competitive. In the end, he chose to accept the ANU appointment.
Oliphant was convinced of the benefits of nuclear research to Australia and encouraged by the level of official support for the new university laboratory. In later years, he frequently recalled Florey's warning (given at Tilbury when farewelling Oliphant in 1950) that going to Canberra would be committing scientific hara-kiri and that all he would find in Canberra would be a 'hole in the ground and a mountain full of promises'. But any decision to take the easy option and remain in Birmingham would have been totally out of character for Oliphant. Extending the metaphor of Florey's warning, Oliphant's move to Canberra meant that he would need to establish a new laboratory on a bare ridge in an almost empty campus within a town that had no significant high technology industry.
From 1946 to 1950, when he became Director, Oliphant tapered off his direct involvement with the Birmingham synchrotron and was increasingly concerned with the design of the proposed Canberra accelerator and with planning, staff recruitment and administration of the new research school.
Oliphant and his family moved to Canberra in 1950. Although the Birmingham synchrotron was not yet finished, Oliphant considered that all critical decisions had been taken and 'the rest was detail' that could be settled in his absence. After his departure, the Birmingham project was delayed by problems in the motor generator set, the anchorage of the pole tips and an electrical short in the magnet windings. These faults ('details') were easily fixed but the delays were such that, despite starting two years earlier, the Birmingham machine did not reach its designed 1 GeV until July 1953, a few weeks after the US 'Cosmotron' reached 3 GeV.
Oliphant was both founding Director of the School and leader of the group that conducted the School's major projects. His plans to build in Canberra one of the world's biggest particle accelerators dominated the expenditure of the School's funds. At a time of postwar shortages, buildings, workshops, stores, and technical services had to be established from scratch to support research over a wide range of the physical sciences. Oliphant's projects also brought to the School a number of experienced technicians, some of whom had worked with him in Cambridge and Birmingham. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Research School was being set up, there was an acute shortage of experienced technical staff throughout Australia, and the continued recruitment of technical staff from overseas was required.
In addition to leading the work of his own group in high-energy accelerator physics, Oliphant, as Director, expanded the work of the Research School to include astronomy, mathematics, geophysics, theoretical physics, atomic and molecular physics, nuclear physics and particle physics. Under his leadership, the Research School became a major centre for Australian research and postgraduate training in the physical sciences. Oliphant was a generous manager and his 'one man rule' enjoyed the strong support of the academic staff, most of whom had never before worked in an adequately funded laboratory where needs were anticipated rather than placed in a queue.
The academic expansion of the Research School may be judged by considering some of the first professorial appointments. In 1950, the Commonwealth Astronomer, R. van der Reit (Dick) Woolley, became an honorary Professor of Astronomy at the ANU. Oliphant further expanded the academic range of the School in 1952 by appointing John C. Jaeger as Professor of Geophysics. In 1956, Oliphant appointed Kenneth Le Couteur, an outstanding theorist who had been responsible for the extraction of the beam from the Liverpool cyclotron, as Professor of Theoretical Physics. Also in 1956, when Woolley was appointed Astronomer Royal and the transfer of the Commonwealth Observatory on Mt Stromlo to the University formed the ANU Department of Astronomy, Bart J. Bok from Harvard was appointed as Professor of Astronomy. In 1962, Bernhard H. Neumann was appointed as Professor of Mathematics.
Oliphant made a senior academic appointment in a field close to his own in 1950 when Ernest W. Titterton, then at Harwell, was appointed as a Professor of Physics. Titterton had been Oliphant's first research student in Birmingham and from 1943 to 1947 was a member of the British group at Los Alamos. He was experienced in the use of cloud chambers and emulsions, both of which would be useful techniques for studying the properties of some of the 'strange particles' that might be produced by a high-energy accelerator. The original strategy was for Titterton's group of nuclear physicists to conduct an experimental nuclear research programme using a number of small accelerators, while Oliphant's team of accelerator builders completed the big machine. The small accelerators included a 1.2 MeV Cockcroft-Walton set (purchased in 1951, commissioned in 1952), a 33 MeV electron synchrotron (a gift from Harwell in 1955) and an 8 MeV cyclotron (built in Canberra in 1955 as the injector for the big machine). The original strategy was soon out of date, due to delays in machine building and because the nuclear physics research programme was proceeding independently.
Oliphant's initial plans for the new Research School were centred on the construction of an accelerator that could operate at 2 GeV, that is, at twice the energy of the Birmingham proton synchrotron. Oliphant called the proposed accelerator a cyclo-synchrotron and described it in Nature in 1950. Although construction of the massive foundations and assembly of the 1400-ton magnet proceeded at a satisfactory rate, it became clear by 1953 that the US proton synchrotrons would outperform the Canberra cyclo- synchrotron before the latter could be completed.
Oliphant was forced to revise his plans and to increase the target energy to 10 GeV or more in order to remain competitive. His proposal was to convert the pole pieces and the main magnet of the cyclo- synchrotron into a homopolar generator (HPG), which stored energy in massive steel discs rotating at 900 rpm. Molten sodium jets would provide interconnections between the rotors using technology to be developed by E.K. (Ken) Inall. The stored energy would be drawn as an electric current that would rise to about 1.6 MA (million amperes) in about 0.6 s and power an air-cored synchrotron magnet located in a separate building (the 'round house'). The designed particle energy was 10 GeV, with an interval between pulses of 10 minutes compared with the 2 GeV pulses at 10-second intervals of the cyclo-synchrotron.
These changes were an ingenious solution to the problem of designing a particle accelerator that would be competitive because of its higher energy, but the competitiveness was achieved at the expense of a much slower pulse rate, which might make the machine very difficult to use for high-energy experiments. The machine, although less complicated than the original design because of the separation of functions, made great demands on the design and construction staff, some of whom found the task before them daunting.
Oliphant was more than ever in need of people who had 'fire in their bellies'. Trained in basic physics, Oliphant was a talented mechanical designer justifiably confident in his own natural ability. He was a successful but demanding group leader, who inspired great loyalty in the staff who worked closely with him. He was generous and tolerant towards his staff to an extraordinary degree, but his tolerance had its limits and he had a wicked turn of phrase. He often expressed disappointment at the time taken to complete the work, 'You have held this up by 18 months', but never complained that someone was not working hard enough. Oliphant sometimes said that a design had been made too complicated, or too sophisticated – 'We'll have no Rolls Royce installations in this building' – or even (horrors!) that a component was 'unnecessarily well made'.
The Canberra accelerator programme was seriously behind schedule by 1955. Members of the accelerator team remained fiercely loyal to Oliphant and looked to him for leadership as it became more widely known throughout the School that delays in the accelerator project could cause serious problems for ANU. There were complaints from some members of the University of Sydney's School of Physics about the magnitude of the research funds going to ANU. In 1955/56, several joint meetings were held between Sydney and ANU physics groups to discuss the ANU accelerator programme. At one point a group of three senior members of the ANU accelerator team sought to discuss external criticisms with Oliphant. The critics argued that, in view of accelerator developments in other countries, work on the Canberra 10 GeV accelerator should be abandoned. Oliphant admitted that the accelerator was behind schedule and that some mistakes may have been made, but argued that the construction was the team's own original work and much could be learned from it. After the last joint meeting, Oliphant summarised the arguments as follows:
Berkeley had found the antiproton and would skim off the cream of the experimental results; the 10 GeV Russian machine would be in operation before the ANU machine was ready; and ANU should cut its losses and complete the HPG for other work.
In conclusion, Oliphant made the surprise announcement that the construction of the accelerator would be deferred and all efforts would be concentrated on completion of the HPG.
The combination of a large HPG for energy storage and a separate air-cored magnet for particle acceleration was an imaginative proposal that required detailed design work. With the resources available, Oliphant's decision to defer the accelerator and concentrate construction efforts on the completion of a working HPG now seems inevitable. It certainly should not have come as a surprise in 1955. This limited objective took until 1965 to complete and involved an immense amount of work. The modifications required for the HPG to meet the requirements of a 10 GeV accelerator had been made using liquid metal jets of sodium-potassium alloy (NaK). In 1962, the HPG with NaK interconnections met all design criteria and, in a series of tests, supplied currents over 2 MA. This was a short-lived triumph for the hard-working HPG team for, unfortunately, during cleaning operations in July 1962, NaK contaminated with kerosene and potassium peroxide exploded, tragically blinding George Lagos, a young technician.
Over the years, the Research School had gained considerable experience in the use of the conducting liquid metals, mercury (Hg, liquid at room temperature), sodium-potassium alloy (NaK, liquid at room temperature) and sodium (Na, liquid above about 100°C). Following the inquiry that was convened after the July 1962 accident, the use of NaK and other liquid metal systems was abandoned and the HPG was rebuilt under Jack Blamey's supervision using copper/graphite brushes designed by Dr R.A. (Dick) Marshall.
With its solid brushgear, and a new air- bearing system designed by Oliphant, the 1965 HPG was, in all respects, a better, safer and more versatile machine than the 1962 HPG with NaK interconnections, even though the earlier machine had met all its design criteria. The 1965 HPG worked well, but no attempt was made to use it to operate a large accelerator. Instead, it was used extensively as a power source for some high-current facilities in laser and plasma physics, including a 30 Tesla-pulsed magnet, a powerful rail gun and the LT-4 Tokamak. The LT-4 Tokamak was designed specifically to operate with power supplied by the HPG, and the combination performed reliably and routinely for several years, exploring the conditions needed for toroidal plasma confinement. After nearly a quarter of a century of valuable service, under a wide range of operating conditions, the HPG was decommissioned at the end of 1985.
Oliphant retired from the Directorship of the Research School of Physical Sciences in 1963 and, a year later, from his position as Professor of Particle Physics. His involvement with the HPG also ceased and he was therefore free to pursue other research interests. He received the title of Professor of Ionised Gases, and was provided with a small laboratory, a research assistant and a technician. Thus, he returned to the small-scale physics that had been the subject of his early days as a PhD student in the Cavendish, namely the interaction of intermediate-energy positive ions with metal surfaces. Much had been done in that field in the intervening thirty years but, in his view, much still needed to be done because 'the results are strangely inconsistent and their explanation often dubious and incomplete'. These words set the stage for the work described in four papers presenting the results from his laboratory in the period 1965-1968.
Taking advantage of modern, clean high- vacuum technology, he and his small group investigated reactions between numerous light atomic and molecular ions, some multiply charged, and a number of carefully degassed metal surfaces. How long he would have continued this work one can only guess. He clearly delighted in getting his hands dirty again in the laboratory, designing and making some of his own apparatus. In 1968, the University fellowship that had been provided for him had run its course and it was finally time for him to begin to retire from the university he had been so instrumental in founding.
Oliphant never completely severed his connection with ANU. He shared an office in the School, participated in School seminars and discussions and regularly attended Founders Day, which was established in 1981 on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Founders Day is held every October on a date near his birthday and consists of a morning of seminars and award presentations, followed by a barbecue lunch for the whole School. Oliphant remained a very strong defender of the special nature of the ANU. As an example, in 1991, at the age of 90, he made a fighting speech at a meeting attended by over 500 members of the ANU staff, criticising Government proposals to separate the John Curtin School of Medical Research from the ANU.
Attempts to form a 'national academy of science' to promote scientific research in Australia and to represent Australia in international scientific activities started as long ago as 1901. These early attempts had failed because of regional loyalties and jealousies and the difficulties of interstate travel before the provision of regular commercial air transport.
In the early 1950s, Oliphant and Dr David F. Martyn, Chief Scientist with the Radio Research Board, independently decided that a new attempt should be made to form an Australian Academy of Science, and that those Fellows of the Royal Society of London now resident in Australia could be used as a nucleus and planning group. The Prime Minister of the time, Robert Menzies, agreed wholeheartedly with the need for an Academy of the kind proposed, and the powerful collaboration between Oliphant and Martyn overcame the difficulties that had defeated previous attempts to form an Academy. Oliphant and Martyn organised the Petition to the Queen requesting the formation of the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), which was constituted by Royal Charter in 1954. Professor Mark Oliphant was its first President.
The formation of the AAS encouraged the development of Australian science nationally and its representation internationally, but the arguments that had delayed the foundation of the AAS for so long would not instantly disappear. Although the need for an Australian academy of science was widely recognised, it needed all Oliphant's persuasive and placatory powers to hold the AAS together during those early years. Other talented personalities, such as David Martyn, H.R. (Hedley) Marston, and A.C.D. (David) Rivett, all fellow Council members who had been prime movers with Oliphant in the formation of the AAS, had strong but differing views on its planning and organisation.
There were also problems arising from the relationships between the AAS, CSIRO, the State universities and ANU, and their differing responsibilities for research.
The AAS needed a building. Oliphant approached Essington Lewis and W.S. Robinson, leading industrialists who had been elected to the AAS in 1954. They spearheaded appeals to the major commercial and industrial companies for funding, with immediate success. Eventually, the total cost of the building was covered by donations. As Chairman of the Building Design Committee, Oliphant oversaw the construction of the Dome, as it was called, in early 1959. The completion of this distinctive and prize-winning building in record time was a remarkable achievement.
In 1961, Oliphant delivered the Academy's Matthew Flinders Lecture, entitled 'Faraday in his time and today'.
Along with astronomers worldwide, Oliphant recognised the need for large telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, where the southern skies were under- explored, and gave strong support for the creation of one in Australia, to be operated jointly by Britain and Australia. In 1963, he initiated the action of the AAS in the preliminary stages of the establishment of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, which was finally inaugurated at Siding Spring, NSW, in October 1974.
In September 1964, Oliphant accompanied the President of the AAS, T.M. Cherry, and two other Fellows, E.S. Hills and E.J. Underwood, on a four- week visit to China, at the invitation of the Academia Sinica. The invitation was reciprocated in the following year.
A dinner was held in the Dome in 1987, co-hosted by the AAS and the Royal Society of London, to celebrate Oliphant's election to the Royal Society fifty years earlier. This occasion, together with a bust of Sir Mark that has been installed in the lobby of the Dome, are testimony to the esteem in which he is held by the AAS.
In 1971, Sir Mark Oliphant began a new career when he accepted an invitation by the Premier of South Australia, D.A. (Don) Dunstan, to be nominated as Governor of that State. Dunstan had sought such an appointment three years earlier, but political events had intervened.
Oliphant's appointment broke the long tradition of appointing retired military officers to the post. Oliphant believed that the role of Governor, although mainly ceremonial, would give him the chance to serve his home State and he accepted the appointment proudly and willingly. He warned the Premier, though, that he was not prepared to be a 'military-type' Governor and that he would wish to be able to speak as freely on public matters as he had been in Canberra. Dunstan was more than agreeable. Despite his age (almost 70), Oliphant was fit for the post and relished the challenges that it would bring.
Oliphant was to serve five years as Governor. The public and the media welcomed him, and were proud to have such a distinguished scientist and acknowledged humanitarian as their Governor. Some politicians and commentators claimed to see in Oliphant leftist political leanings; others thought his background less suitable than a military one as a preparation for the post and that his ebullience was likely to cause difficulties for the government.
Oliphant was a decidedly different sort of Governor from his predecessors. Well informed on a wide range of issues, and accustomed to speaking his mind, he was not reticent in expressing opinions on matters of public concern. He wrote his own speeches and was an excellent performer, and his remarks made good press copy. His views continued to receive public attention, including those on the nature of God and the perils of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing. On local matters, he spoke very strongly in favour of environmental issues, especially in defence of the Adelaide Hills, and he expressed his opposition to libertarian society, unrestricted pornography, child abuse, drinking drivers, 'magistrates' whims', ugly architecture and vandalism, to mention a few. Polls suggested that the populace approved of a Governor willing to speak his mind, especially as his commonly expressed opinions were widely shared by the general public.
There was little doubt about his popularity, and of the popularity of the office while he held it. He travelled widely across the State, discharging all his duties with dedication and enthusiasm. He tried to draw into the vice-regal circuit people normally outside it. With Rosa, he once hosted a garden party for 4,000 people who had never previously attended a vice-regal function.
Later on, Oliphant's relationship with Dunstan deteriorated markedly. Oliphant came to feel the irrelevance of the Governor in the political process, and to believe that the government only tolerated the existence of the post because it could not do away with it. Ministers began to appear offhand in their dealings with him, for example, failing to dress with appropriate formality for their presentation to him of an Address-in-Reply. This and an accumulating series of aggravations, including a hurtful confrontation with radical students at Flinders University, led him to seek to resign in August 1974, only to be prevented from doing so by the intervention of the Premier.
The tensions did not subside and were heightened when Oliphant proposed to make a public statement supporting the action taken by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in dismissing the Whitlam Government in November 1975. The South Australian Government's response was to pass legislation setting tight guidelines for the dismissal of the government by the Governor, so avoiding any possibility of a similar crisis in South Australia.
Among Oliphant's last acts in office was to write to the Premier, expressing his concerns at the government's intention to appoint Aboriginal pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls as his successor on the grounds that various cultural issues would have affected Nicholls' capacity to fill the role. Dunstan nevertheless appointed the pastor. Oliphant's response was, typically, to invite the Governor-designate and his wife to visit Government House to familiarise themselves with its operations.
Oliphant returned to Canberra in December 1976 but his involvement with South Australian politics was not yet at an end. In 1978, he became deeply embroiled in the 'Salisbury Affair', in which Dunstan dismissed South Australia's Police Commissioner, H.H. (Harold) Salisbury, on the grounds of allegedly misleading Parliament about the nature of material kept in secret files. Oliphant sided with Salisbury, whom he regarded as a man of integrity, and asserted on several occasions that, had he still been in office, he would have offered his own resignation rather than sign an Executive Order dismissing Salisbury. The rift with Dunstan was never permanently healed.
With funding by public subscription, a bronze head of Sir Mark was later erected outside Government House on North Terrace, Adelaide's principal thoroughfare.
Oliphant had style and dignity. White-haired from an early age, he retained his distinctive, upright stature to the end of his long life. These features, together with his booming laugh, gave him a 'presence' in any gathering. His personality was such that even his opponents had to like him. He was richly endowed with natural talents. His leadership qualities, ingenuity, originality, idealism, courage and zeal, to mention but a few, served him well.
Oliphant had interests in nuclear physics, accelerator physics and other, broad areas of engineering physics. Although he made no pretence to be a theoretician, he was supremely confident in his own ability to master any technology even before some of what he liked to call 'the details' had been properly worked out. He always chose ambitious projects, and not infrequently underestimated the time needed to complete them. He liked to work with only a small team, which enabled him to be flexible about altering his plans. He never adopted the detailed planning methods for accelerator design involving large teams of engineers that were used with such success in the USA and at CERN. His own self-confidence could be infectious but it limited the effective criticism that a more determined and independent professional staff might have been able to provide. As one of them noted: 'None of us had ever defied Oliphant. Our sin was that we had failed to agree with him'. He was a natural risk-taker who never hesitated to rail at what he believed was excessive caution, continually exhorting his team to 'stick their necks out'.
Always 'good with his hands', Oliphant's exceptional technical skills were recognised while he was still at school, and were appreciated by Kerr Grant in Adelaide and Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. Oliphant liked to be involved in all aspects of a major project. He enjoyed detailed design work and, throughout his professional life, continued to take personal responsibility for the design and construction of important components of major projects. One of Oliphant's continuing pleasures was jewellery-making, especially with silver, an interest perhaps aroused by his job with an Adelaide jeweller for a short time after leaving school. He made Rosa's wedding ring out of a nugget that his father had brought back from the Coolgardie goldfields. While Governor of South Australia, he installed a small workshop in the grounds of Government House and, at the end of his tenure, presented the household with a set of six silver candlesticks that he had made himself on the premises.
Oliphant was a skilful and persuasive speaker and writer who could 'think on his feet'. He was quick-witted, enjoyed argument and debate, and never missed a chance to take a rise out of the bureaucracy when it seemed to him foolish or pompous. But he was notorious for his sometime public changes of opinion. For example, he adopted a fiercely anti-nuclear stance after Hiroshima, like many scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb, and his views on euthanasia changed as he approached his own death.
Along with these skills in the spoken and written word went salesmanship, which enabled him to sell ideas and elicit funds and materials for their realisation, the principal examples being: the building of the cyclotron and proton synchrotron in Birmingham (from Lord Nuffield and Tube Alloys) before and after the war, respectively; silver for electromagnetic separation (US Treasury); the accelerator in Canberra (Australian Government); and the 'Dome' of the Academy of Science (Australian commerce and industry).
Oliphant was forthright and passionate in his belief in the benefits that the world, especially Australia, could gain from application of the physical sciences. He was on firm ground when explaining basic physics and its potential benefits to the Australian public, but the simple analysis that worked so well in physics did little to explain more complicated social issues. For Oliphant, science always provided the right guide, whereas practitioners of other disciplines such as economists, architects, clergymen, non-scientific administrators, engineers and, of course, politicians, had, he believed, little to offer. Some of these, for their part, considered him to be naïve and simplistic.
Oliphant's impatience with security rules during the war was shown, for example, when, on a visit to Washington in 1941, he informed R.G. Casey, Australia's representative there, about Britain's work on uranium. This indiscretion, and others, may have been responsible for his exclusion from later high-level decision-making on nuclear matters. He was outspoken in his postwar opposition to the military use of nuclear power and made no effort to conceal his views, which may have caused him to be denied a visa to enter the United States in 1951, and resulted in unfair political smears in his own country.
Two world wars affected the course of his life. All of his secondary schooling was spent during the first, when teaching staff was severely depleted as the young flocked to the Front. During the second, his part in the development of radar and the atomic bomb gave him international recognition and prestige, but at the cost of severe set- back to the development of the cyclotron in Birmingham, upon which all work ceased as he and members of his laboratory moved over to war work. Resumption of peace- time pursuits was slow, amid severe postwar stringencies in Britain. For many years after the war, a large portion of his time was focused on anti-war activities. In Canberra, the paucity of infrastructure in postwar Australia, necessitating the importation of technical staff, equipment and resources from Britain, was undoubtedly a contributory factor in his failure to achieve his goal of building the accelerator.
Anyone attempting, however briefly, to appraise Oliphant's achievements cannot fail to be impressed by their range and significance. Oliphant was justifiably proud of the fundamental work he had done with Rutherford in Cambridge in the 1930s. This research on nuclear reactions in the light nuclei assured Oliphant of a permanent place among the pioneering founders of nuclear physics. During the war, he and his teams from Birmingham University made significant contributions to the development of radar and the atomic bomb. After the war, he was the first to request and receive funds to construct a proton synchrotron. His major achievements in Australia were his contribution to the creation of the ANU; the formation, as founding Director, of the ANU Research School of Physical Sciences, with its outstanding research facilities; and his leading role in the establishment of the Australian Academy of Science. No other physicist has made a greater impact on Australian science than Professor Sir Mark Oliphant.
Sir Mark enjoyed a happy, loving family life, which was, however, touched by sadness. He and his gentle wife Rosa suffered the sudden, tragic loss of their infant son, Geoffrey, in Cambridge in 1933 and that of their adult son, Michael, in Melbourne in 1971. The family endured prolonged periods of separation, especially during the war. Rosa died in 1987, after a long illness during which Sir Mark cared for her devotedly. He and Rosa always had the loving support of their children Michael and Vivian, daughter-in-law Monica and grandchildren Michael, Katherine and Michele.
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.14, no.3, 2003. It was written by:
The authors wish to thank Dr Mary Carver for researching background material and preparation of the manuscript. The formidable task of locating and correctly compiling a list of Sir Mark's publications was assisted by staff of several institutions, especially by Ms Susan Woodburn, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.
A collection of Sir Mark's publications is held in the Special Collection of the Barr Smith Library of the University of Adelaide, South Australia.
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