Australian Biography

Sir Marcus Oliphant - full interview transcript

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[After you had decided that you should oppose the use of a nuclear bomb,] you turned your attention to developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. What were your thoughts about its value in that arena?

Oh well I thought, when I came to Australia in 1950 I was still of the opinion that nuclear energy would be useful, and I'd been associated with its development in Britain, and Sir John Cockroft, who was probably my closest friend in England, was the Director of the Harwell Laboratories and I had close connections with them and with it all and it's - I felt that it - it might be useful, it looked to be a possibility. But then I very rapidly realised that it, well the nuclear reactor was the source of the plutonium that was used in the nuclear weapon that was dropped on Nagasaki, and that if you had a nuclear reactor, you had access therefore to plutonium if you liked to spend the money on the chemical plant that was involved, and could make nuclear weapons. And so I'm afraid that I reversed my point of view completely and feel now that under no circumstances should Australia have nuclear power.

Were your feelings about that only because it - as it relates to nuclear weapons, or did Chernobyl make you feel concerned about ...

Oh I - no well ... no, I take rather an engineering point of view towards Chernobyl, that there - you know, Murphy's Law holds with any bit of equipment, if it can go wrong it will go wrong, and sooner or later we were bound to learn by bitter experience that some of the things that we'd done in the design of nuclear reactors were not good. And while the engineers and others had thought very carefully about the whole problem, it was quite clear first with two bad accidents that didn't receive much publicity, but which took place in Great Britain, and then with the accidents in the United States, and finally with Chernobyl spreading radioactivity over a great part of Europe, it was quite plain that we didn't know what we were doing, and completely and that the question of safety of nuclear reactors was still to some extent an open question. The French have been very successful so far, they've had no bad nuclear reactions ... reactors ... problems, they've had problems but nothing that has released large amounts of nuclear radioactivity into the air. The Russians have had a number of accidents, which have - some of which have released radioactivity, culminating in Chernobyl which did spread more over the Earth than any previous accident. The only reason that the - the worst accident in Britain didn't turn - produce as big an effect as Chernobyl was that England is a very small country.

So do you feel that if the engineering problems could be solved, that that wouldn't constitute a reason for not wanting to ....

Oh I'm quite sure they can be solved, I'm quite sure they can be.

But the cause of ...

... and that that will not in the end be ... but nuclear reactors might be useful for certain purposes. For instance, if one wants to set up a power station on the moon so as to have a permanent observatory there, one might easily provide it with power with a nuclear reactor, which would be a very sensible thing to do. And if it blew up, so what? And of course it's proved invaluable for the propulsion of submarines because it enables the submarine to remain under for a year or so if necessary, and to navigate for instance right underneath the polar ice at the north of magn... or North Pole - in the north magnetic pole, so that they've - it has done useful work. Nuclear propulsion of ships hasn't proved to be a success. A number of trials have been made and they haven't worked out, they've either had trouble in containing the radioactivity or else the cost has been far too great. And the cost of nuclear power is still higher than that of power from... from fossil fuels. Mainly because of the precautions one's got to take, and the fact that the, that the engineering side of the building of a nuclear reactor is very complex and expensive therefore.

And the consequences of the mistake in the engineering are just so much greater than any other kind of mistake you might make.

That's right. But it's still a fact of course that the cost of the fuel is absolutely negligible, it doesn't come into the equation at all. It's ... the whole of the cost of nuclear power is in the engineering costs and the protective costs that have got to be met.

So with these doubts that you've developed about nuclear power, what do you see as the alternative form of energy for the future, because you've also been involved in concern about the ecological impact of fossil fuel?

Well, I feel that nuclear power is the final answer. But nuclear power not on earth, but in the sun's interior. And that nuclear power becomes apparent as the radiation of light and heat onto the earth, and where it hits the earth ... contributes about one kilowatt of power per square metre, which when you come to think of it in a square kilometre, which is a million square metres, is a .... a lot of power, that the, the ... or no it's a hundred thousand square metres, and a hundred thousand kilowatts you see per square metre, so that one can easily show that if one collected the solar power with reasonable efficiency, from the desert areas of South Australia alone, let alone the rest of Australia, like Western Australia and Queensland, New South Wales and so on, that from South Australia alone, one could provide the - all the energy for the whole of the world. One doesn't realise this - that the sun is such a magnificent nuclear reactor. There it is far enough away to do us no harm. And it works by the fusion process rather than the chain process of fission which is used in nuclear reactors, and it - what's more it will go on producing this power for the next few million years, so we have no problems whatever about the future. Now the - it's the absolutely clean power, and the right way to get over the fact that the sun doesn't shine all the time, means that one's got to store energy to use - and the right way to do that is to change the electric ... energy into the energy of burning gas. The gas that one produces would be hydrogen gas, which when it's burnt produces as the result only water, so it's a completely clean fuel so we ... and already in Germany one has BMW and Daimler Benz running motor cars on hydrogen instead of petrol, it's a beautiful fuel, and the Russians - Tupiloff there has an aeroplane running on hydrogen. Once again a fuel which is non-polluting in every sense of the word and is a - it has problems, for instance with an aeroplane because hydrogen is a very light material it's the lightest material of all - lightest of all the elements, and so the volume that it occupies even when it's liquid is still large. It means that one has to provide in say an aeroplane or a motorcar a bigger volume of storage for your fuel than you do for petrol. But undoubtedly it will come, it will come and it's - every day the techniques for transforming the sun's rays into electric power are becoming more and more efficient, more and more cheaper and cheaper, and it won't be very long now before it becomes commercially a practical proposition. Well when that happens of course, Australia, especially South Australia could export enormous amounts of energy as hydrogen gas, in the same way, for instance, as North West Cape is exporting liquid natural gas, which has a boiling point not much higher than that of hydrogen, in enormous great thermos flasks on board a vessel to Japan, and it's proving to be economically quite a practical proposition, so it would be so for hydrogen.

Have you involved yourself at all in the quest for a solution to the storage of solar energy?

I've done a number of experiments myself and still doing odd experiments, getting ideas and trying things out ...

So you're actually active as a scientist.


... aged ninety.


And this is your area of interest.

That's right yes.

... solar energy.

But it's slow, I - I have no-one, I haven't got research assistants and workshops and so on to help me, I have to do everything myself, but still it's fun. To keep some sort of scientific technique going, but of course my hobby of silversmithing also keeps me in touch with using my hands.

When you came to the ANU and you set up a department and started to build a cyclotron, you started attracting a certain amount of criticism after a while for it. Could you tell us the story of that and it culminated in some rather unpleasant press for you in which they referred to the development of the cyclotron as the white Oliphant.


And so on. Could you tell us the story of that episode.

Well it was - I'd rather not talk about it if you don't mind, because it's closely related to the existence in Sydney of a man called Messel, who became the Head of the Physics Department there, and a very ambitious man indeed, who had no time whatever for the Australian National University and was very, very jealous of our access to funds and things of that sort, so that it would be much better if I didn't discuss that particular point.

Well let's talk about your involvement with the ANU more generally. You were, and I suppose in fact that relates into some extent with your involvement with Australia. I mean you grew up in Adelaide, you had this opportunity to go to England, and Cambridge became, I think you've called it publicly on more than one occasion, your spiritual home.

Yes, still is.

And yet you made a decision to come back to Australia really, aged 50 at the height of your career and your powers, you decided that you would return to Australia. What persuaded you to do that?

Cussedness in general perhaps, but I must do a little explaining here, that the foundation of the National University came about because of the activities of Dr Coombs, Nugget Coombs as he's known popularly, who took up a proposal that was made in the beginning by Howard Florey, of penicillin fame, a friend of mine and also an Australian-born, Adelaide-born man, who wrote a report for the Prime Minister at the time in 1943 I think it was, when he came out to Australia on a visit during the war, suggesting that there wasn't enough work being done on medical research in Australia, and suggesting how it might be - how a research establishment might come about. Now Dr Coombs was at that time the Secretary of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. His Minister was Mr Dedman, and Nugget Coombs thought that this was a wonderful idea, to establish a research establishment for medical research. But one should also have research establishments for other parts of of learning, amongst them in particular the social sciences, and the physical sciences, and so Nugget came and he persuaded Howard Florey and Keith Hancock a historian and social scientist, and me to form a little committee in England. We were joined at times by a man named Firth, who was a New Zealander, but only occasionally, who was more responsible for what was called Pacific Studies which Mr Eggleston I think insisted should be included in this new university that they thought of, which was to be a purely postgraduate university and whilst it consisted of these institutes of higher learning. And each of us, Florey and Hancock and I were invited to come out to Australia and be the Directors of the respective institutes. In the end I was the only who said yes. I said I would come because I was and still am a very loyal Australian and thought that I owed it to Australia - which had been very good to me and they'd given - helped me to get this scholarship to go abroad and so on, so the fact that I was in Cambridge was due to Australian influence and so on. So I felt, to use an American term, obligated to some extent to return to my native country. Secondly, I thought that it would be better for the children if they were to grow up in Australia. We had at that time two children, both adopted children, and were anxious for them to have the best of - possibilities of life. And it was that reason that I said yes, but at Victoria Station where the boat train left from to join the ship at Southampton, the Orcades, to come out to Australia, to see us off Howard Florey came, and we walked up and down the platform he and I, he telling me what a 'b' fool I was to do it and trying to persuade me to change my mind. He said, 'It'[ll] just be the end of your research career, you'll just find yourself so involved with setting up this new university that you'll have no proper time to devote to your scientific work', and he used the words, 'You know if you leave this country you'll be committing scientific hari kari', and he was right, he did - I did. I came out, he - one remark he said to me 'You know what you'll find when you get there?' and I said, 'No.' and he said 'A lot of promises and a hole in the ground' and that was exactly what I found. I'd been promised - that there'd be a house for instance for us to live in - there was no house for us to live in. We'd live for nine months in the old Hotel Canberra, before there was a house available for us to live in. And what's more there was no laboratory of any kind, we were housed in some old hospital buildings on the site of where the university is now, wooden buildings dating I think from the First World War or something of the sort, and I had an office there, but there was - all I could do was - trying to recruit people, so I spent a lot of time travelling around the world trying to persuade people to come to this unknown place Australia in the outback, to do scientific work, which most of them of course felt was an impossibility.

Were you offering them a lot of promises if they came?

No I was careful not to, not to overexpand that - but also pointing out that that there were advantages in living in a new country, that the life was perhaps somewhat more exciting than the dull life of Britain or of Germany or of America as the case may be, Canada ... But ... this was the great problem that I faced was having colleagues, finding colleagues. I got Ernest Titterton to come out to head up the work on nuclear physics. He'd been my first research student in Birmingham, and had done very well and so - and he accepted the chance to come out with his family, and he was the first of the people to join me here. But then I had great difficulty in finding - I found a number of junior people who'd either worked with me in Birmingham or Cambridge and would - willing to come out, mostly Australians. I had two magnificent technicians, Jimmy Edwards and ahhh ... another who I persuaded to come and they were a great help in getting things started, and workshops going and things of that sort, and building apparatus and helping with experiments and so on. So that that part was to some extent taken care of. But it took me an awful long time, for instance, to find a Professor of Mathematics. Mathematicians felt that Australia was the end of the world, and was - so I was lucky enough to persuade Bernard Neumann and his wife to come, and they were - great trouble about that because Bernard said that he and - his wife was a mathematician also - he said, 'If I come, my wife's got to come too, and she's got to have a job in mathematics as well', he said, 'We're like the butler and the cook housekeeper and you've got to have both together', and then of course - this was against the sole, whole sort of idea in circles in Australia that a man and his wife should both be appointed to jobs and I had to get this through the Council. But there again Nugget Coombs was a great help, he was a very far-sighted man. He was the - one of the first on the council and I persuaded them in the end and Neumann did come, and that transformed mathematics in Australia 'cause he immediately instituted a series of summer schools in mathematics that became very attractive to young people, who'd finished a mathematics course and rapidly mathematics took off in Australia as a result, and I think that was one of the really great things that we did. Then I - in addition the government gladly handed over the Mt Stromlo Observatory to us, as the astronomy - so that we had Mt Stromlo and then immediately realised of course that it was the wrong place for an observatory and Bart Bock who became the Professor of Astronomy after Dick Woolley became Astronomer Royal in England, immediately kind of started to look for a better place and finally our place is in Northern New South Wales at Siding Springs where we were joined by the British, with a British-Australian telescope built jointly which has done a wonderful job, and there are various other ... It's become one of the - one of the big and famous observatories in the world, Siding Springs, and played a major part in the observations that were made during the moon flight for instance, and things of that sort. So altogether gradually things took off and things began to work. But in addition I was able to persuade a man whom I knew to be very interested in such problems to come and tell us how to - he was a Canadian named Tuzo Wilson - T.U.Z.O. Wilson, and he was a famous geophysicist, a man who was looking at the structure of the earth for instance, not from the point of view of just what rocks there were and what rocks were ... what was in the rocks, but from the point of view of how they came to be there and how the earth as a system as a whole worked, and the interior of the earth as well as the exterior, and he came out and gave some lectures and gave us valuable advice, and I was able to find a man to take over the geophysics chair, and this then took off and we got going so that I began to feel that something had been accomplished. But it took a very long time. It took I should think fifteen years to really feel that the research school of physics was a going concern.

So the prophecy was correct in relation to your own research career, but it does sound as if out of that hole in the ground, rather a lot grew. Did you feel in the end, and again with hindsight - looking back, did you - do you regret that move in coming here given what you did accomplish, despite what you gave up?

Yes I - for myself I regret it. I realise each year when I go back to Cambridge and I was there in October you see of last year.

You manage a visit every year?

I've managed so far, a visit each year. That was to commemorate the birth of James Chadwick who was my great friend and it was at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, and we also had the celebration in Liverpool where Chadwick had been Professor.

But each year when you go back ...

So that went on but this of course was after I'd given up being Director of the School, Research School of Physical Sciences, which is flourishing now. But we are under difficulties you see the John Curtin School of Medical Research, the Government - the previous Government decided that it was to be taken out of the National University and be made a government department under the National Health and Medical Research Council, one of these squabbles over funding and so on, and this immediately had repercussions on the other research schools because they're looked upon with envy by the other universities to some extent, and we're now fighting a real battle to retain the Institute of Advanced Studies at all, and that is it may be that all that I did will disappear in smoke, and that the National University will become just another ordinary university.

Whereas do you feel that if you'd concentrated on your own scientific research, that's something that doesn't disappear in smoke like institutions do?

(Over Robin) That's right, that's right. You, you keep going and - I mean my belief in life is that you've just got to keep going, keep on keeping on. And that's the - I think the only way to live your life and then you get interested in problems as see of the origin of the earth and of the solar system, of the universe as a whole, now as a result of these probings into the structure of the atom. It's very strange that ... probing into the, into the strange character of the inside of the atom, has led to us learning far, far more about the universe as a whole than we knew previously. And it's become a very exciting subject the cosmic astronomy as it were.

The difficulties you've been having at the ANU or this whole new orientation towards research reflects an attitude to the place of universities and the place of research and what scientific enquiry is actually for, which has arisen very much in the last few years, and has become a bit of a national debate. What are your thoughts on that subject of the value of pure research?

Well if I may say so, it's not only a national problem, it's a world-wide problem, that what goes on in universities should be useful, that nothing should be done or be financed by governments except something which leads to advances in technology or the standard of living or something of that sort, and something which is useful. So they demand that one should only do in universities things that will either produce useful people like engineers and so on, or economists who for some reason or other are supposed to be useful, but they don't seem to have the answer to any of the problems of the world. But they are favoured in the universities to some extent, but the real problems are still unknown in physical sciences and chemistry and so on. We're just beginning to understand the chemistry of the life process, and this phenomena life which we know of only on this earth, is the most wonderful thing that one can imagine. You see nobody yet knows what's the difference between living matter and dead matter. You've got an animal, it's alive one moment, it's dead the next, chemically, physically, in every way it's identical when it's dead with when it was alive, and something is missing - this thing we call life, and we just haven't got any clue about that. But strangely enough it's the techniques of physics and chemistry, the physical sciences which, taken into biology are now opening up our understanding, by the use of radioactive isotopes as the indicators of where things are in the body. You give somebody a dose of medicine - where does it go? Well you're able to trace exactly where it goes if you make it slightly radioactive; not enough to harm the body, but you have extremely sensitive ways of detecting radioactive materials and you always use very short-lived radioactive materials medically, but it has given us an enormous amount of information about the way the body operates. And then there was a magnificent woman who worked in Kings College in London, Rosalind Franklin, who was a crystallographer, she was interested in the arrangement of atoms in crystals and in particularly in the arrangement of atoms in crystals of biological significance, and after the discovery of DNA by Crick and Watson in Cambridge of course became all the rage, but what people forget is that Crick and Watson's work was entirely based on the observations made by Rosalind Franklin, and undoubtedly if she hadn't died beforehand, unfortunately, she would have been the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, which she was the first to open up with her x-ray work. So that the movement of physical sciences into biology has opened up new eras of ways of looking at the atom. One can now, for instance, work with single atoms so skillful have physicists become, that they can manipulate a single atom with a pointed tool, in what's known as an electron emission microscope.

Now, despite the fact that even as we talk, you're demonstrating an enormous interest and curiosity about the line that the scientific research took, you made this decision to make a contribution to the community, to Australia, by taking a more sort of organisational and leadership role in setting up the ANU. At a later stage, you also made a decision to make a contribution in a completely different way when you were asked to be Governor of South Australia. Could you tell us about that decision, and that phase of your life?

Well Mr ... it began by a visit to me in the laboratory, I was working in the laboratory, I had - still had a secretary and office and a laboratory to work in those times, although I did - I was no longer Director. And Don Dunstan came to see me and talked to me about the possibility of me becoming Governor of South Australia, and I thought about it a bit, and I said to him, 'Well I won't say no, but I've got to talk this over with my wife, she'd be very much involved in this', and I did that, I talked it over with her, and in the end she said yes she would. I don't think she ever enjoyed it very much, she found it rather a chore.

[end of tape]

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