Mark Oliphant

From Academic Kids

Sir Marcus 'Mark' Laurence Elwin Oliphant (October 8, 1901 - July 14, 2000), Australian physicist and humanitarian.

Born in Kent Town, a suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. He attended the University of Adelaide in 1919 studying physics after being inspired by a particularly good lecturer.

In 1925 he heard a speech given by physicist Ernest Rutherford and decided there and then that he would work for him - an ambition he fulfilled by gaining a position at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1927 which was at the time carrying out the most advanced research into nuclear physics in the world. It was at Cavendish, for example, that the atom was first split in 1932.

Oliphant's contribution to this work was his discovery of helium 3 and tritium. He was also the first to discover heavy hydrogen nuclei could be made to react with each other. This fusion reaction is the basis of a hydrogen bomb. Ten years later American scientist Edward Teller would press to use Oliphant's discovery in order to build one.

Oliphant too worked on the Manhattan Project as part of the British delegation. At the outbreak of war Oliphant was sent to the United States as part of the British team that helped to set up the Radiation Lab at Berkeley which eventually devised a system of microwave radar, improving on the work of Robert Watson-Watt in England.

In 1943 he went to Los Alamos to assist on the bomb project, but the work made him uneasy and he preferred to concentrate on processes for refining Uranium 235 at Berkeley with his friend Ernest Lawrence - a vital but less overtly military part of the project. He was awarded the 1943 Hughes Medal.

He returned to England in April 1945 and after VE-Day took up a post as Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham. It was here that he first heard of the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He was later to remark that he felt "sort of proud that (the bomb) had worked, and absolutely appalled at what it had done to human beings." He became a harsh critic of nuclear weapons and a member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. His wartime work would have earned him a Congressional Medal of Freedom with Gold Palm, but the Australian government vetoed the honour.

In 1950 he returned to Australia as first Director of the ANU Research School of Physical Sciences at the new Australian National University, where he was the first to design what is now known as the rail gun as a scientific instrument. He established the Australian Academy of Sciences in 1954 and was its first President until 1956. After retiring from the University in 1967, Oliphant was invited to become State Governor of South Australia, a position he held from 1971 to 1976.

He was knighted in 1959 and was made a Companion in the Order of Australia (AC) in 1977.

Late in life he watched his wife, Rosa, suffer before her death in 1987 and became an advocate for voluntary euthanasia.

He died in Canberra on July 14 2000, aged 98. Both the Mark Oliphant Conservation Park and the Oliphant wing of the Physics Building at the University of Adelaide are named in his honour.

Sir Mark’s nephew, Pat Oliphant, is a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist.

Preceded by:
Major-General Sir James Harrison
Governor of South Australia
Succeeded by:
Sir Douglas Nicholls

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