Home Australia Gone but Not Forgotten: Australia’s Nuclear Scientist Mark Oliphant

Gone but Not Forgotten: Australia’s Nuclear Scientist Mark Oliphant


oliphantMark Oliphant, AC, KBE, FRS (1901-2000)

by Mary W Maxwell

Today would be Sir Mark Oliphant’s 115th birthday. Yes, he was born with Federation. He was the oldest of five boys.

In the twenties, after graduating from University of Adelaide, he set sail (like, um, no airports, you know) for Cambridge University. There he worked in the Cavendish Labs under Rutherford of New Zealand who treated him like a son.

The atom was still a mystery, imagine that. (Well, it still is, I suppose.) Oliphant was a major discoverer of microwave, stemming from his pioneer work with radar. Thus he found his way into the Manhattan Project and lived in New Mexico.

Years later he regretted being a part of the development of the atomic weapon.

In 1954 he and a few other big scholars founded the Australian National University. Yes in those days it was thinkers who did that sort of thing.

Mark was my neighbor and dear friend in the 1980s. He once told me that if you haven’t tasted pure mathematics you haven’t lived.

Imagine a kid from Adelaide having notions like that. If you have teenage children I recommend you get them a copy of the wonderful biography “Oliphant” by the late Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard.


Photo Credit: biografiasyvidas.com



  1. I “should of” mentioned that Mark’s daughter-in-law, Monica Oliphant, is also a prominent physicist in Adelaide, dealing in solar photovoltaics and power generation.

    Or, to put it another way, she is a tree-hugger who understands that renewables can do the job.

    Go, Monica!

    • Just had another recollection. Mark made several trans-atlantic trips during the War, from Los Alamos, to confer with the Big Boys in London.

      Mode of travel consisted of wearing a helmet (against noise) and lying down in the bomb bay — where it was freezing.

      It’s a good thing nobody said “Bombs away!”

  2. Bloody hell Mary, when will Tony Jones of our ABC discover you for our Q and A discussions.
    What! Jonathon Faine might give you a gig?
    Nah, you would give it up them Mary and we cannot cope with the challenge, now can we msm?

    • Ned dear, I am taking a break this week from murder trials — Tsarnaev, Bryant, Droudis.

      I am only going to write on positive topics.

      (unless, of course, something comes up…)

      Oh, Ned, thank you for the compliment. Yes it was not that long ago, was it, that one could attend — on radio — a thrilling science lecture. And do you recall Jane Figgis’ Science Book Review?

      How about Earl Hackett’s The Body Show? Maybe that’s not the exact name of his show.

      Something else Oliphant told me. He said Oppenheimer was the most arrogant person he ever met — and that he deserved every bit of it.

      OK Let’s bring back days when one can earn one’s right to be thoroughly arrogant. Love it!

      Who the hell invented humility?

  3. Australia has produced some brilliant people and inventions, however universally neither are recognised fully. If only some of these brains had been used politically for the benefit of all Australians.

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