Mark Oliphant

Sir Mark Oliphant

Sir Mark Oliphant.jpg
Mark Oliphant (1939)
Born(1901-10-08)8 October 1901
Kent Town, Adelaide, Australia
Died14 July 2000(2000-07-14) (aged 98)
Canberra, Australia
  • Australia
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
Alma mater
Known for
Scientific career
ThesisThe Neutralization of Positive Ions at Metal Surfaces, and the Emission of Secondary Electrons (1929)
Doctoral advisorErnest Rutherford
Doctoral studentsErnest William Titterton
27th Governor of South Australia
In office
1 December 1971 – 30 November 1976
MonarchElizabeth II
PremierDon Dunstan
Lieutenant GovernorSir Mellis Napier
Sir Walter Crocker
Preceded bySir James Harrison
Succeeded bySir Douglas Nicholls

Sir Marcus Laurence Elwin "Mark" Oliphant AC KBE FRS FAA FTSE (8 October 1901 – 14 July 2000) was an Australian physicist and humanitarian who played an important role in the first experimental demonstration of nuclear fusion and in the development of nuclear weapons.

Born and raised in Adelaide, South Australia, Oliphant graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1922. He was awarded an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship in 1927 on the strength of the research he had done on mercury, and went to England, where he studied under Sir Ernest Rutherford at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. There, he used a particle accelerator to fire heavy hydrogen nuclei (deuterons) at various targets. He discovered the respective nuclei of helium-3 (helions) and of tritium (tritons). He also discovered that when they reacted with each other, the particles that were released had far more energy than they started with. Energy had been liberated from inside the nucleus, and he realised that this was a result of nuclear fusion.

Oliphant left the Cavendish Laboratory in 1937 to become the Poynting Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham. He attempted to build a 60-inch (150 cm) cyclotron at the university, but its completion was postponed by the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe in 1939. He became involved with the development of radar, heading a group at the University of Birmingham that included John Randall and Harry Boot. They created a radical new design, the cavity magnetron, that made microwave radar possible. Oliphant also formed part of the MAUD Committee, which reported in July 1941, that an atomic bomb was not only feasible, but might be produced as early as 1943. Oliphant was instrumental in spreading the word of this finding in the United States, thereby starting what became the Manhattan Project. Later in the war, he worked on it with his friend Ernest Lawrence at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, California, developing electromagnetic isotope separation, which provided the fissile component of the Little Boy atomic bomb used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945.

After the war, Oliphant returned to Australia as the first director of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering at the new Australian National University (ANU), where he initiated the design and construction of the world's largest (500 megajoule) homopolar generator. He retired in 1967, but was appointed Governor of South Australia on the advice of Premier Don Dunstan. He assisted in the founding of the Australian Democrats political party, and he was the chairman of the meeting in Melbourne in 1977 at which the party was launched. Late in life he witnessed his wife, Rosa, suffer before her death in 1987, and he became an advocate for voluntary euthanasia. He died in Canberra in 2000.

Early life

Marcus "Mark" Laurence Elwin Oliphant was born on 8 October 1901 in Kent Town, a suburb of Adelaide. His father was Harold George "Baron" Oliphant, a civil servant with the South Australian Engineering and Water Supply Department and part-time lecturer in Economics with the Workers' Educational Association.[1][2] His mother was Beatrice Edith Fanny Oliphant, née Tucker, an artist.[3][4] He was named after Marcus Clarke, the Australian author, and Laurence Oliphant, the British traveller and mystic. Most people called him Mark; this became official when he was knighted in 1959.[5] He had four younger brothers, Roland, Keith, Nigel and Donald.[6] His parents were theosophists, and as such were opposed to eating meat. Marcus became a lifelong vegetarian while a boy, after witnessing the slaughter of pigs on a farm.[7] He was found to be completely deaf in one ear and he needed glasses for severe astigmatism and short-sightedness.[8]

Oliphant was first educated at primary schools in Goodwood and Mylor, after the family moved there in 1910.[9] He attended Unley High School in Adelaide, and, for his final year in 1918, Adelaide High School.[10] After graduation he failed to obtain a bursary to attend university, so he took up a job cleaning floors for a jewellery manufacturer. He then secured a cadetship with the State Library of South Australia, which allowed him to take courses at the University of Adelaide at night.[11]

In 1919, Oliphant began studying at the University of Adelaide. At first he was interested in a career in medicine, but later in the year Kerr Grant, the physics professor, offered him a cadetship in the Physics Department. It paid 10 shillings a week (equivalent to AUD$34 in 2010), the same amount that Oliphant received for working at the State Library, but it allowed him to take any university course that did not conflict with his work for the department.[12] He received his Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in 1921 and then did honours the following year, supervised by Grant.[13] Roy Burdon, who acted as head of the department when Grant went on sabbatical in 1925, worked with Oliphant to produce two papers in 1927 on the properties of mercury, "The Problem of the Surface Tension of Mercury and the Action of Aqueous Solutions on a Mercury Surface"[14] and "Absorption of Gases on the Surface of Mercury".[15] Oliphant later recalled that Burdon taught him "the extraordinary exhilaration there was in even minor discoveries in the field of physics".[16]

Oliphant married Rosa Louise Wilbraham, who was also from Adelaide, on 23 May 1925. The two had known each other since they were teenagers. He made Rosa's wedding ring in the laboratory from a gold nugget (from the Coolgardie Goldfields) that his father had given him.[17]

Other Languages
català: Mark Oliphant
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français: Marcus Oliphant
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Nederlands: Mark Oliphant
norsk nynorsk: Mark Oliphant
português: Marcus Oliphant
русский: Олифант, Марк
Simple English: Marcus Oliphant
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Mark Oliphant
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