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.

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 Oliphant wrote to each other excited by the news out of Germany of the discovery of nuclear fission of uranium.

By 1940 Oliphant had been recruited into war work by the British Ministry of Aircraft Production, and had been tasked with miniaturising radar units the size of houses. The subsequent invention of the microwave-generating cavity magnetron by Oliphant and his colleagues resulted in aircraft-portable radar, and came just in time for Britain to stave off sustained Nazi raids and hold on to its tenuous grasp on sovereignty during the Battle of Britain.

The radar project was so secret that those with ties to Germany were barred from working on it. So Oliphant set two of his refugee physicists, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, onto a less-secret task: the fanciful concept of an atomic bomb!

A Weapon of Math Construction

Frisch and Peierls crunched the numbers and came up with the formula that if the uranium-235 isotope was used instead of the more abundant uranium-238, a critical mass of only a few kilograms was all that was required to make a bomb that would, in a flash, generate the energy comparable to the interior of the Sun. Furthermore, a lasting ghostly radiation would continue to kill long after the explosion.

Oliphant took Frisch and Peierls’ Memorandum on the Properties of a Radioactive Super-bomb to the Ministry, and a new committee code-named MAUD was set up to design the factories that would be required to concentrate enough uranium-235 to make a bomb. But by the spring of 1941 Oliphant had seen the full effect of the blitz that had been laid upon Birmingham, and feared that a uranium concentration factory could be built in a year but destroyed in a night. Oliphant and other members of the MAUD committee elected to send their results to the United States with the hope that the Americans could provide refuge for the project and its scientists.

In August 1941 Oliphant headed to Washington to brief the Americans on developments in radar. He was asked to quietly enquire whether they had started work on the atomic bomb. He was reminded of the need for discretion and secrecy and instructed that he should only direct enquiries through the formal channels.

Oliphant quickly learned that the secrets from Britain were locked in the safe of a bureaucrat, and there was little focused progress. He was frustrated and impatient, and personally took the decision to cross the vast continent of the United States and tap on the laboratory door of his old friend Ernest Lawrence.

Lawrence was shocked to hear of the snub given in Washington, and pulled an eccentric theoretical physicist into the room, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and closed the door. Oliphant explained the secret formulae from Birmingham and that the Germans were also likely working on a bomb. Turning to Oppenheimer, Oliphant stated: “We cannot afford to neglect even a probability that the scheme will work successfully. Whichever nation is first to succeed in this quest will undoubtedly be master of the world.”

Oppenheimer and Lawrence headed to Schenectady in upstate New York to brief the American Academy of Science. The news escalated up the chain, and within days Roosevelt wrote to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to throw open the door of cooperation. Oliphant had broken secrecy rules and Churchill was furious. Oliphant was cautioned but, with the first atomic arms race now underway, he escaped significant sanctions.

Two months later, on 6 December 1941, the Americans decided to start a project that would become known as the Manhattan Project. A day later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The surprising and violent attack could not be further from Oppenheimer’s soft charismatic lilt heard in Schenectady. But the two events, at that moment, started to spin paradoxically like entangled quantum particles before colliding over Hiroshima in 1945.

Oliphant and the General

In 1943 Oliphant joined the top-secret Manhattan Project where he and Lawrence worked side-by-side in Berkeley and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the problematic task of separating uranium isotopes. Oliphant was regularly in trouble with the FBI and Military Police for breaching the “compartmentalisation” policy that restricted inter-communication between the various departments. His letters were intercepted, and he found that rules that stemmed the flow of open discourse were tiresome.

In 1944 he wrote to the military head of the project, the florid and no-nonsense General Leslie Groves, to complain of the restrictions on getting his work done. In late September 1944 Groves headed to Berkeley and sat Lawrence and Oliphant down to give them a lecture on how much bigger than them the project was. The scientists had become too self-absorbed in their work and had forgotten that a delicate balance of security and technology progress was required to win the war.

Groves was usually circumspect, but his frustrations with the scientists were self-evident when he blurted out that the American military intended to control atomic weaponry and science after the war in order to “prepare for the inevitable war with Russia”. The Americans, it seemed, had little intention of honouring the agreement to share atomic technologies with Britain after the war.

This was a startling revelation, and Oliphant foresaw that atomic research in Britain would be restricted after the war. This also meant that his homeland of Australia would also be restricted. Australia’s CSIR head, David Rivett, had been supplied tit-bits of information from Oliphant about the atomic energy machine since 1941, and was desperate to learn more.

Not wanting to risk his communication being intercepted by the FBI again, Oliphant travelled 3 days by train from San Francisco to Washington and wrote a memorandum from inside the security of the British Embassy. The memorandum spelled out that British research was under threat and that the Americans intended for post-war atomic monopoly in research, energy and the weapon.

Sent via secured diplomatic bag, the memorandum caused a kerfuffle back in Britain. Oliphant laid a new plan to repatriate home all of the British scientists on the Manhattan Project, and to reach out to the British dominions (such as Australia) for assistance. The British government was open to the plan. Oliphant was ordered home to Britain, and his suggestions were taken up the chain to Lord Cherwell (Churchill’s scientific advisor) and Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and leading authority on atomic matters in Churchill’s Cabinet.

James Chadwick, the head of the British mission to the Manhattan Project, was incensed. Chadwick wrote to his government arguing that a removal of British brains from America would significantly disrupt the project.

On 9 January 1945, Oliphant arrived at 11 Downing Street to meet with the Chancellor. Sir John was sympathetic to Oliphant’s cause, but pointed out that there was a war that still needed to be won. Oliphant was told to desist in his communications with Australia and to return to America to complete the task at hand.

By March 1945 the Oak Ridge plant had reached efficiency and was producing uranium isotopes for a bomb that eventually would be bound for Hiroshima. Oliphant had completed his monumental task in bringing new technology to utility, and wrote to Lawrence resigning his commission to the project with the hope for continued post-war collaboration:

There is no doubt we have been associated with a birth of a new industry. This is not a passing phase in the intensive development of a new military weapon but a permanent contribution to science and technology of the future... Although war has brought the opportunity to do these things, and although the immediate results will be incalculable destruction, we know that in the ultimate analysis this aspect will be overshadowed by the benefits wrought for mankind... Mutual respect and understanding have always characterised scientific men, for the literature of science is the first real world language. Oliphant Letter to Lawrence, 16 March 1945

The bombs fell on Japan. The war ended.

The Aftermath

In 1946 Oliphant became an advisor to the Chairman of the recently formed United Nations commission on atomic energy, the Australian politician Herbert Evatt. Oliphant and Oppenheimer ran interference between the politicians trying to get them to agree to a worldwide ban on atomic weapons and a global sharing of atomic technology for use in peacetime. But Evatt sided with his old friend, Bernard Baruch, who represented the United States, and no agreement could be reached.

In the month following the conference, in August 1946, the United States passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which locked the doors of their laboratories. As warned by Oliphant a year earlier, the United States was not prepared to share the atomic technology. But as predicted by the scientists, the secrets of the atom could not be contained and the atomic monopoly would be a fleeting moment of ascendency for the strong-armed United States. The monopoly lasted until 1949 when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb.

Oliphant returned to Australia in 1950 to take the first chair of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University and founded the Australian Academy of Science in 1954. He was a founding delegate of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957, which campaigned for the abolition of nuclear weapons and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

An Agent of Science

So what were Oliphant’s motivations to break with secrecy rules and kick-start the American bomb project and attempt to do the same with the British? Did he really desire to play a hand in the multilateral proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?

His personae is famous. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with a booming laugh, a reputation for directness, and never shied away from a confrontation. But he was also a deeply compassionate man with a theosophist childhood and a life-long commitment to vegetarianism: he loathed killing things.

But he seemingly told British secrets to the Americans; American secrets to the British; and British and American secrets to the Australians. His loyalty clearly lay not with an individual state but with a higher agency that transcended national borders.

His motivations throughout all his actions was to advance science for “benefits wrought for mankind”. Oliphant was an agent of science.


Darren Holden is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and has had two papers published this year by the Historical Records of Australian Science, upon which work this article is based.