Man who went from bomb-maker to pacifist

Marcus “Mark” Laurence Elwin Oliphant was born on October 8, 1901, in Kent Town, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. Having moved to Britain, in the late 1930s he headed a Birmingham University team secretly researching high-power oscillators for improved radar capabilities.

The Guardian newspaper, in its obituary for Oliphant, who died on July 14, 2000, said his group “played a crucial role in winning the Second World War in the air by making short-wave radar possible”.

In 1950 Oliphant had a hand in starting the Australian National University, and served as its first director of the research school of physical sciences and engineering. In 1954 he established the Australian Academy of Science and was its first president until 1956. 

He was later appointed as Governor of South Australia by the state’s premier, Don Dunstan, and contributed to the formation of a new political party, since folded, called the Australian Democrats.

In its obituary for him, The Economist wrote that “during his five-year [gubernatorial] term he spoke out on the issues that worried him: the environment, racism, the importance of the family, themes that stayed with him for the rest of his life”.

Still, despite all that and more, Oliphant remains best known for his contribution to the development of the atomic bomb.

According to the Encyclopaedia of World Biography, Oliphant and his colleagues at Cavendish Laboratory, part of Cambridge University, UK, were the first to split the atom, in 1932. Oliphant himself discovered the elements helium-3 and tritium, and also found that the nuclei of heavy hydrogen could be forced to react with one another and to fuse together.

It was this discovery of fusion that led the way to the hydrogen bomb.

In its biography of Oliphant, the Atomic Heritage foundation writes: “While researching radar at the University of Birmingham in 1940, Oliphant received the findings of German scientists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, who had calculated that a uranium-235 atomic bomb was feasible. Realising that the weapon could turn the tide of war, Oliphant took their findings to British government officials.”

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Scientists examine the cyclotron at Birmingham University in 1945. (standing below) Australian physicist Sir Mark Oliphant points up to (left to right)  S R Cornick, Dr Dorothy M Skyrme, on the first level, and on the second level J Hanlon, M P Edwards and Sir Ernest Titterton.

Credit: Francis Reiss/Picture Post/Getty ImageS

A committee of nuclear physicists in Britain was formed, code-named MAUD, and tasked with investigating how much U-235 would be needed to produce a bomb. In 1941, the committee reported that a critical mass of 10 kilograms would be sufficient to create a titanic blast.

MAUD members concluded that Britain didn’t have the resources to build such a device, so they handed their research to an American physicist, Charles Lauritsen, who passed it on to Lyman Briggs, head of the American Uranium Committee.

Briggs, however, didn’t distribute the MAUD report. Concerned by the lack of reaction to their work, the committee sent Oliphant to the US to lobby for a joint US-British atomic bomb project.

Oliphant bypassed Briggs and talked up the possibility of an atomic bomb with senior government officials. As a result, the Uranium Committee became the S-1 Project of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and, in December 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the project was titled the Manhattan Project.

Later in life Oliphant became a noteworthy pacifist, but was clearly worried about his own initial motivations, and those of his peer.

“I learned during the war that if you pay people well and the work’s exciting, they’ll work on anything,” he is quoted as saying. “There’s no difficulty getting doctors to work on biological warfare, chemists to work on chemical warfare, and physicists to work on nuclear warfare.”

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