Australian Biography

Sir Marcus Oliphant - full interview transcript

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After the war was over, and you thought about your role in the war: you worked on radar and you'd worked in the lead-up to the bomb, how did you feel about your contribution to the war?

That's hard to understand - or to express, even to understand for oneself. That there was this sort of feeling of sort of gratitude that the war was over, because one knew so well how the sort of work I was doing, flying over Germany for instance in bombers to see how the radar worked where - how well it worked in picking up the site of a city or a bridge over a - and flying through the flack and so on. It was interesting to see these little puff balls appearing in the air there from the anti-aircraft guns and that sort of general hope that one of them wasn't too close to you, because anti-aircraft fire was very bad at that time, very ... a lot of guess work in it and so on. So that one wasn't too afraid, but one did see the destruction which had been wrought in these German cities, and that was terrible to look down on and also to look down on the terrible things that they'd done in other places. To be in London when a V2 came over was really a rather terrifying experience, if one was in the open and walking around, so that one had finished the war with a great sort of feeling that if ... almost of puzzlement as to why mankind had done this to one another. Why people had deliberately destroyed not only the lives of men, women and children indiscriminately, by the bombing of cities and so on, but had destroyed the works of their hands. Some of them the most beautiful buildings in the world, and this seemed such a wrong thing, for man to be deliberately doing, and it was these sort of general thoughts that went through one's mind, more than any sort of feeling of close association with it. It was a feeling of somehow or other all of this had to be stopped, and one had of course great hopes that the United Nations idea would produce something that ... by the way, I'd like to say something about my involvement with the United Nations with Dr Evatt, in 1946.

Hmm. So after the war was over and you had these personal feelings, was mixed in with those feelings any sense, at the time, of personal guilt? Did you feel guilty?

Yes. But not - not overly so. It was a curious sort of feeling of guilt. I imagine the same sort of feeling as the soldiers had who'd - or the airmen had who'd dropped the bombs, it was a - a sort of feeling of action at a distance. In other words you weren't - you didn't personally kill the man, it was killed in the name - he was killed in an indirect way, certainly through you machinations, but not directly, and this did change, to some extent, one's attitude towards it all.

So your subsequent involvement in the efforts to bring the world together and to stop this kind of thing happening again, was based on a more general concern about war, rather than an expiation of any sort of personal guilt that you felt about your involvement.

Oh yes very much so.

And ...

And it was - because you know, I hadn't mentioned this before but all my life I've been very much concerned for this phenomenon that's in the solar system confined to this earth, this phenomenon of life, of evolution, of the man as the pinnacle of evolution, and hence the responsibilities of man towards the whole of the earth. And ever since I could make decisions for myself, I've been for instance a vegetarian as a result, because I have, do not want to kill things in order to remain alive, and I think it's totally unnecessary and after all I'm near - over ninety now, so I think I've proven my point.

So that this attitude well and truly pre-dated the war.

Yes well that's right. My feeling for humanity was before the war. I've already mentioned earlier that I was at one time, you know, contemplating being a clergyman and so on. It, it was family influence to some extent but mostly I think that because my brothers - two of my brothers served in the airforce, the Australian airforce and ...

So this was a very curious position for a person like that with all these feelings that were pro-life, finding yourself in the midst of this terrible conflagration.

That's right, and coming to terms with it was not all that easy, but ...

How did you come to terms with it.

I - it was the sort of hatred I think of ah the Hitler regime that really drove me. See I had had working with me in 1933 the exodus of the Jews from Germany it became a real river and in Cambridge we had to receive a large number of German scientists, some of whom worked with me, and I got to know them intimately and their reactions to the regime in Germany and so on. People like those I've already mentioned, Peierls and Frisch for instance, and another man named Harteck who worked closely with me, and who was not a Jew. And hence, but he'd left Germany before - because he didn't like the regime, not because he was driven out. So it was a mixture of people and I learnt a lot from these people and their reactions to the treatment that they'd received, and ...

So you had to try and reconcile two things that you needed to do during the war, one was to defeat the Nazi regime, and the other was the great repugnance you had for anything that involved ...

That's right.

... the death of other people.


How successful were you in reconciling the two? How did you manage during that time, inside yourself?

Well I don't know, you've go to develop a double personality you know, and think one way one moment, and then another way the next. Ah, you never do reconcile the two.

And after it was over you were free to go with the way that you felt more comfortable.


And what ...

It's like, it's like suddenly being angry with somebody, angry with one's wife and then the next moment one's contrite and unhappy about it all. It's a - it's a sort of a dual personality that I think is in every person. And I found the same with my women colleagues also, in Cambridge that ... people like Miss Marsdorp who came from Rhodesia and had a totally different point of view towards black Africans from mine, you see. That taught me a very great deal, about human relationships. And then I had a Pakistani student who worked, researched with me very closely, from whom I learnt a lot about their beliefs - he was a Mohammedan of course - and what motivated them and his reasons for being nevertheless interested in science and physics and wanting to do well.

So you feel that it's part of the human condition to have seemingly irreconcilable ideas ...


... reconciled in their daily life.


What form did your action against war take, when the war had finished? What did you do?

Well I joined various organisations, got into trouble over some of them. One of them was the World Federation of Scientific Workers oh, I think it was called, which organised - which I wasn't a member of - but it organised ten years after his death, it was in 1947, a meeting at the Sorbonne in Paris, on Rutherford, to commemorate Rutherford ten years after he'd died. And I was asked to speak having been very close to Rutherford, and worked with him. And I attended this meeting, but it turned out afterwards that this meeting was, as the security people said, permeated by Soviet people, people who were in sympathy with the Russian regime, and this of course kept coming up that I'd attended this meeting organised by the ... So was I a member of it you see and I wasn't, I merely went because it was commemorating Rutherford, whom I loved.

What other things did you join, what - what other movements did ...

Well the the Pugwash Movement as I've already ...

That was actually off camera. Tell us about Pugwash because you haven't told us before. You haven't told us about Pugwash before.

I did, I told you about.

Off camera.

... Mr Eaton and about the way he ...

The camera wasn't rolling.

Ah wasn't it? Oh I see ah.

So if you could tell us about your involvement in Pugwash.

Yes. When the Americans let off their first hydrogen weapon, it so horrified Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, that he together with Einstein, wrote a manifesto, it was known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which they both signed, and it was an appeal to the scientists of the world to get together and eliminate from the world this terrible menace of nuclear weapons. And Russell whom I knew personally, whom I'd done broadcasts with - I naturally fell in with this proposal, and a gathering was called in London of scientists who had these sorts of sympathies, which was a preliminary meeting of people with those ideas, and an arrangement was made through the interest of an American multimillionaire who'd been Canadian born. He'd been born at a little fishing village called Pugwash in Nova Scotia on the banks of the, of the mouth of the St Lawrence River. And he invited this group to meet at Pugwash where he had transformed the old family home into a sort of place for seminars and so on of a serious nature, and he provided the wherewithal for these to be held. And Pugwash was already well known for meetings of a serious kind, to consider the human condition and so on. So I went along as one of the members of about thirty people at the first Pugwash conference in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. We were flown from the whatever aircraf... airport we arrived by Mr Eaton in his own private aeroplane, and it was a gathering of people from all over the world including, and this was very important - including four Russians. Now the whole concept behind these Pugwash meetings was that they were to be private meetings. There was no - no ...


Newspapers or press or media people present, so that everybody could let their hair down and say what they liked without being reported in the press as saying things that were not good in the eyes of the ... This enabled the Russians to come, in the knowledge that they would not be reported, and it was an incredibly helpful discussion. The leader of the Russians was the Physical Secretary of the Russian USSR Academy of Science and so a very influential man. They brought plenty of vodka with them, so that it was an occasion of enjoyment in more ways than one. But we got down to work and it turned out to be very successful. Now through - there had been many meetings of the Pugwash Group held elsewhere in all sorts of parts of the world; in Poland, in East Europe, in countries that no longer exist, many of them, and in London and Cambridge, and Moscow and so on - and also abroad in India, and in Japan.

With hindsight, what do you think was the main contribution of Pugwash?

Well the one thing I think that we were really very successful in, was we had a very full discussion about the cessation of test explosions in the air which were spreading radioactivity everywhere. And we did discuss scientifically what would happen if you made these explosions underground, sufficiently underground, and then advocated very strongly that they be put underground, and report it to every nation in the world, that was concerned at all with nuclear things, that tests in the future should be carried out underground. All nations respected that except the French.

You were also interested in the broader hopes that were represented by the United Nations, and you involved yourself to some extent in that.

Yes, I was a member of the United Nations Association and have continued to take an interest in it, although I'm afraid I'm rather disabused about the United Nations as a body that's capable of controlling the passions of mankind in the world; their - the reasons for going to war and so on. The Security Council has proved a bit of a washout. Now I was involved with the first meetings of the Security Council and the Atomic Energy Commission that was established by the United Nations as one of its first activities. Now you remember that because of the alphabetical order of Chairman of the, of these bodies, Australia provided the first Chairman for the first meetings. It was Dr Evatt, and I was asked by the Prime Minister at the time whether I would go as Dr Evatt 's expert on nuclear matters and military matters in general. Which I did and I flew from England with Dr Evatt, who was dead scared of flying, and his wife, across the Atlantic in an - one of the very early Constellations. And that was quite an amusing experience but I don't think it's relevant to what we are talking about now. He was very frightened of flying but he did fly. He had the guts to fly. But as Chairman of the meeting which in those days had no simultaneous translation, it was a terrible business, you'd hear a speech in English, the first speech was given by the American, head of the American Delegation, and gave the American point of view about the future of nuclear power in the world, nuclear energy in the world, and that was followed by its being translated into French, and then into German and so on. One had to sit for hours while these translations took place, and then the next one would come on and the next speaker was Mr Gromyko from Russia, and Mr Gromyko put the proposal - his proposals were very simple, he said, 'Russia demands as number one priority that all existing nuclear weapons should be dismantled'. They didn't use the word 'destroyed' because they realised that the radioactive materials, the explosive materials that we used were also the materials for use in nuclear reactors, for making nuclear power stations. And that no nuclear weapons in future should be allowed to be made, that there should be a universal inspection of every country and its industries, under the United Nations to verify that no nuclear weapons were being produced, and that was really the essence of what his proposals were. It produced an immediate reaction in Robert Oppenheimer, who was the Adviser to the American Delegation on nuclear matters of course, having been the father of the nuclear weapon. And he rushed around to me as the Adviser to the Chairman of the meeting, said, 'For heaven's sake get your boss to say something in favour of the Russian proposals because that is wonderful', he said, 'I think that we should consider them very seriously, and I'll tell my boss, that that is what I feel', but he ... I said ... 'You get your boss to to do that', he said. 'Matter of interest', he said, 'I'll give you a bit of classified information', he said, 'At the present time there are only three nuclear weapons in existence', and he said, 'It would be half an hour's work to take them apart - dismantle them', and he said, 'If the whole proposal failed, it'd take us another half hour to put them together again. So', he said, 'We've got nothing to lose by considering very seriously the Russian proposal'. Well as soon as I got a moment I went down to the Chairman who was sitting in the middle of the circular audience of representatives of nations and said to Doc Evatt, 'I've been talking to Robert Oppenheimer and he and I both believe that the Russian proposal should be considered very seriously. Will you please make a statement to that effect, that we should discuss them in detail', and Evatt turned around to me and irritably said 'No, no, no, nothing of the sort, we might want to use them against them'. That was the response I got. So we never got anywhere.

Extraordinary given how Evatt was labelled, as a Communist sympathiser.

Yeah that's right.


But you see Mr Bernard Baruch who was a - an oil millionaire who was the leader of the American Delegation - a very tall old man, gracious, a nice old man, I liked him. Well he seemed old to me at that time, I suppose he was in his late sixties, but I would, of course, sort of errand boy between Doc Evatt and his office, and the office of Mr Bernard Baruch and I - several times I had to go across and for the ... on the part of the Chairman, discuss the next day's business with Mr Baruch. And I liked Mr Baruch I found him an approachable man, but he was quite inflexible over the - he refused to have anything whatever to do with the Russian proposal.

So Oppenheimer wasn't any more successful than you were ...


... in persuading his boss ...


... to be ...


... interested.

No. So it was - that was that. But one of the things that, for instance, impressed ... I was very interested in Dr Evatt because he was a strange man, and his wife was his mainstay you know. She really took care of him wonderfully well, both on an aeroplane during his periods of excitement and terror and on the ground. But he was a terrific believer in the importance of Australia which of course was miniscule compared to that of the United States, and European countries and so on. But when we got to New York, for instance, Mr ... I've forgotten the name for the moment, a man who had been Foreign Minister and was the first Australian representative on the United Nations, had been instructed to have a car, a special car for Dr Evatt's use while he was in Washington, and it was a Cadillac. When we got there it was a Cadillac, but it was a small Cadillac, and Doc Evatt blew the top off his head in complaint about the fact that this was undignified for him to be riding around in something of this sort, whereas the Representative of Uganda or somewhere was driving around in a great big limousine.

Was he concerned about that for himself or for Australia?

I think a little of both. I think he was, he was genuinely very concerned for Australia's reputation and standing in the world, and very much aware of the, of the importance of his being Chairman of the first meetings of the Security Council and the Atomic Energy Commission, of the United Nations.

Apart from this extraordinary lost opportunity that you were witness to, did you feel that generally speaking his contribution and his representation of Australia as Chair there, was valuable?

Yes I, I suppose it must have called attention to Australia, he was an easily flattered man. Mr Bernard Baruch took him to a ringside seat at some prize fight for the prize fighter of the world, a man named Joe Louis I think was one of the fighters, but I've forgotten who the other one was, and they had ringside seats, and he was - this thrilled him you know, he was really sort of, felt that this was a great honour to be a taken to a ringside seat at a prize fight.

You obviously don't appreciate the role of sport in Australian life for you to be surprised at that so much.

Not, not boxing. I'm very glad that the, that the whole of the medical fraternity is now trying to get it banned - boxing - banned completely as a sport.

Now to move a little away from the actual bomb and your efforts - your anti-war efforts, in the meantime, in relation to nuclear energy itself, you had developed a different attitude.

Yes when I first came to Australia I felt that - interested in nuclear energy as a source of energy and that Australia should be involved particularly as we had deposits of uranium. But because a nuclear reactor naturally inside itself produces plutonium which can be used to make nuclear weapons, I very soon changed my point of view. Ever since then I've been against nuclear power altogether because any country with a nuclear power station, potentially has nuclear weapons. And this is - I don't want to see it proliferated all over the world. Fancy what would have happened if, in the Middle East recently. if there'd been nuclear weapons available in a fracas of that kind. It would have been terrible.

Now we left you at the beginning of the war, with the outbreak of war and your secondment to the war effort, at Birmingham University, with wanting to develop a cyclotron so that you could explore that route. Could you pick up the story there, because when you came to Australia, that was also part of your agenda wasn't it?

Yes, yes. I thought that I would like to see Australia in the nuclear field, and I - we bought a unit from Holland from Philips - high voltage unit which was a beginning, and I got a man who'd been my first research student in Birmingham named Titterton, Ernest Titterton, to come out as a Head of a Department of Nuclear Physics, which he remained until his unfortunate accident and then death. So nuclear physics became part of our job, but at the same time I wanted to also to be in the higher energy type of physics, and the making of new particles that didn't exist naturally on earth, which had been developed in America, first of all in Berkeley in California and then where they produced particles bombarding particles with an energy of eight thousand million volts ... electron volts, which was ten times as great as had been obtained anywhere else before. And that was done by my friend Ernest Lawrence, and his team including Ed MacMillan and others who were great friends of mine. And I thought we ought to have something of that sort in Australia, but I didn't really realise the difficulties in Australia of getting things done in the field of engineering and in the end we had to abandon the effort, it was ... became impracticable, just because of the difficulty of getting things done. But my interest in that field, has remained ever since, and the international group at Lucerne in Switzerland, where the whole of the, practically the whole of the European countries got together including Britain to build big machines which produced even greater energies, in now - even up to trillions of electron volts which have produced some amazing results, new particles that we were unconscious of the existence of. Some of which had been predicted by theoreticians as essential. Others which came out of the blue, and so I've kept up an interest in that field, but purely by reading and writing, not by actual experimental work myself.

But here's another one of those paradoxes that you're confronted with, that on the one hand there is this curiosity to find out more, to understand all. Yet as it goes along, your conscious of the potential for harm in it. What are your thoughts about that?

Well I don't think that in this high energy physics field there is any potential for harm. The potential for harm still lies with the nuclear weapons and the possibility of their use, and with the fact that if you have a nuclear reactor you can make nuclear weapons if you so want to. Those are the dangers that the world faces at the moment, and it's the control of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons that we've got to focus on for the safety of mankind. These super colliders, these super instruments that have been built in America and at Lucerne in ... cooperatively by the European Nations, are instruments that tell us more about the nature of the origin of the universe - the nature of matter as it was born. And this is a very interesting subject and of course led in the end to this concept of the 'big bang' as it's called, as the initial state of the universe, but whether or no that's the correct point of view, is still a moot question. It's the best answer we've got at present.

You'd had the view when you came back to Australia, that at a practical level, nuclear energy would be...

[end of tape]

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