Sir Mark Oliphant is one of Australia's great scientists, an eminent physicist with a brilliant mind. He helped found the Australian National University (ANU) and was the Founding Director of the nearby ANU School of Physics and Engineering . Yet many remember him for participating in something he would prefer to forget, the creation of the atom bomb.
Oliphant's career started when he joined a research team at Cambridge University, where he explored the new and exciting field of nuclear physics. The research involved dissecting atoms, the smallest particle of a chemical element. Their findings stirred interest around the world and little did they know their discoveries would contribute to the most devastating weapon ever used in war.
During World War Two, Oliphant worked on improving communication equipment and his team invented a magnetron. This radar device was used to track down enemy planes and ships and gave the Allies a huge advantage in air and navy battles. The same technology is now found in microwave ovens.
By 1943, Oliphant had returned to the subject that fascinated him most, nuclear energy. He led top secret research in America, code-named 'the Manhatten Project'. Oliphant's team was racing the Germans to be the first with the atom bomb. "It was essential to do this job because we knew the Germans were hot on the trail."
The world watched as the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On the day an atom bomb flattened Hiroshima, Oliphant was on a family holiday in Wales. "Sort of proud that one's gadget had worked, and absolutely appalled at what it had done to human beings." Oliphant condemned nuclear weapons, and supported research into solar rather than nuclear energy. "That sun up there is the best nuclear furnace that exists - why not make use of it."
After the war Oliphant returned to Australia to help establish the Australian National University in Canberra. Here, he continued delving into the mysterious world of nuclear physics.
Oliphant's outstanding scientific work earned him a knighthood in 1959. Twelve years later his career took a different turn with his appointment as Governor of South Australia. He died on 17 July 2000.
From Australian Broadcasting Commission ‘Education Schools’ website http://www.abc.net.au/schoolstv/australians/oliphant.htm