Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia’s Secret Agent of Science

Mark Oliphant. Courtesy Australian Academy of Science

Mark Oliphant. Courtesy Australian Academy of Science

By Darren Holden

Archival documents recently uncovered in the UK’s National Archives have revealed that Mark Oliphant, the Australian-born physicist, breached secrecy provisions during World War 2 to not only kick-start the Manhattan Project but also to attempt to prevent an American monopoly on nuclear technology.

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To refer to Sir Mark Oliphant (1901–2000) as a “secret agent” is a little cheeky. He was not a spy that skulked through the shadows. In fact, he believed that secrecy and science had no compatibility, and campaigned tirelessly to protect the freedoms of nature’s knowledge. Secrets, and particularly those related to science, pressed upon his lips desperate to be let out, even in wartime.

Much could be said of Oliphant, the brilliant South Australian-born physicist. The arc of his life follows both the light and dark times of the 20th century, from his childhood in Adelaide to his eventual return to that city as the Governor of South Australia in 1971. In 1927 he arrived at Ernest Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge as a wide-eyed PhD candidate during the revolutions in quantum mechanics and exploration of the atom’s nature.

In the late 1930s Oliphant, by then the Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham, started collaborating with Ernest Lawrence at the University of California Berkeley, and they forged a friendship that lasted until Lawrence’s early death in 1958. The two men were arguably the greatest large-scale experimentalist physicists of their day, and shared a love of cyclotrons and synchrotrons: big machines that accelerated very small particles.

In mid-1939, as the clouds of war were gathering over Europe, Lawrence and...

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