A Bright Sparcs Exhibition

Just curiosity...Sir Mark Oliphant

by Denise Sutherland

Marcus Laurence Elwin Oliphant, the eldest of five sons, was born in 1901 in Kent Town, near Adelaide, South Australia. Oliphant was interested in pursuing a career in medicine or chemistry, and in 1919 began studying at the University of Adelaide. However, his physics teacher, Dr Roy Burdon, showed him 'the extraordinary exhilaration there was in even minor discoveries in the field of physics' (1) and Oliphant was hooked.

In 1925, Oliphant was further inspired after hearing a lecture by Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand physicist. A giant in the field of nuclear physics, Rutherford had made discoveries about radioactivity and the atomic nucleus.

'The man who has influenced me to the greatest extent in life is Rutherford ... he talked about the work going on in the Cavendish Laboratory. And I absolutely fell in love with this man. I just immediately decided that this was the man I was going to work with, if possible.' (2)

In 1927 Oliphant had the opportunity to fulfil this dream. He won an '1851 Exhibitioner' scholarship that enabled him to study under the supervision of Rutherford at the famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England.

Oliphant made his most significant personal contributions to science during his time at the Cavendish Laboratory. He started research in the field of nuclear physics, working on the artificial disintegration of the atomic nucleus, and positive ions. During this period many exciting discoveries were being made at the Cavendish Laboratory, and the field of nuclear physics was rapidly expanding. Oliphant discovered new forms of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) and helium (helium 3). He also designed and built complicated particle accelerators, in particular a positive ion accelerator. All this work laid the foundations for the development of nuclear weapons.

'...we had no idea whatever that this would one day be applied to make hydrogen bombs. Our curiosity was just curiosity about the structure of the nucleus of the atom, and the discovery of these reactions was purely, as the Americans would put it, coincidental.' (3)

Later Oliphant played a major role in developing microwave radar and, during the Second World War, he led a team of British physicists who were collaborating with Americans scientists on the development of the atomic bomb. However, Oliphant publicly opposed the development of atomic weapons, as a misuse of atomic power. '... I, right from the beginning, have been terribly worried by the existence of nuclear weapons and very much against their use.' (4)

Oliphant returned to Australia in 1950 to become the first Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU). He was also instrumental in establishing the Australian Academy of Science and became its first President (1954-56). After retiring from the ANU in 1967, he became the State Governor of South Australia (1971-76).

Throughout his life, Sir Mark Oliphant has enthusiastically promoted science and technology, and shown great dedication to fostering the growth and development of Australian science.

More information on this influential Australian can be found in the Bright Sparcs Oliphant Exhibition on the WWW at http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/exhib/oliphant/


(1) Conversation with Sir Mark Oliphant, 24 July 1967, National Library Collection, Tape 276, interviewed by Hazel de Berg.

(2) Ann Moyal, Portraits in Science, National Library of Australia, 1994, p. 37.

(3) Conversation with Sir Mark Oliphant, 24 July 1967, National Library Collection, Tape 276, interviewed by Hazel de Berg.

(4) Ann Moyal, Portraits in Science, National Library of Australia, 1994, p. 31.

Yet to be published in Australasian Science.
Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1997
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Denise Sutherland
Date modified: 28 January 1998

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