Australian Biography

Sir Marcus Oliphant - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

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Is danger always part of research? Were you ever yourself involved in a dangerous situation with the work you were doing?

Oh yes I was knocked out - knocked unconscious in Cambridge when I put my hand on ten thousand volts switch and it burnt a hole in the sole of my shoe, because I was standing on a stone floor, an old building with a stone floor, and the stone floors were never quite dry so I really got it, it knocked me out, and there was a chap named Kinsey who was working with me at the time, not the Kinsey of the Kinsey Report, but he was a physicist with a - but he had a wonderful flow of language. When he went to work in America, they just loved him because of the flow of language, and I woke up as it were lying on the ground to find him bending over me saying, 'My god my god, what have I done, have I killed him?'

Well perhaps you're indestructable because you've been exposed to mercury, and you were exposed to microwaves too weren't you?

Well yes, but they're they're not - what I did with microwaves was to prove that they were not dangerous, not lethal.

(interrupting) How did you do that?

I - sitting as I said before with my head in the beam of microwaves until perspiration was running down my face.

And that's all it did - heat you up?

Heat you up like the microwave oven does.

And you had this, this - you were - you had this terrible electric shock and you survived that.


Perhaps you're indestructable.

No. Ah I'm not indestructable by any means, but I often wonder how I got through, for instance nine journeys across the Atlantic in bombers during the war ... 'Cause ah the number of accidents was quite big.

But you were in the hands of very good pilots.

Oh yes. Well they were American pilots and they were - they were good yes.

Not all of them were sober though?

Oh yes they were all sober, all the pilots, but the ...

Didn't you - you've got a story about them.

Oh yes, ... leaving Gander a little later than we'd expected in - from Newfoundland, to go to Prestwick in Scotland, which is a journey of sixteen and a half hours, we - there were only two passengers in the bomb bay an American and myself, and he said 'Well let's go and have a drink at the bar before we leave', when we heard the loudspeakers say we were going, and so we went to the bar, and there at the bar was a man wearing the old Imperial Airways uniform, a black uniform rather like a priest's uniform that they used to wear in the early days of Imperial Airways, and he was a man with greying hair, and in his late fifties or sixties, and he was so drunk that he was swaying backwards and forwards on his feet, we thought he'd fall over, his speech was all mumbled, but in the end we said goodbye to him after we'd had a drink and went off - left him still at the bar, went through formalities on arrival at Prestwick, went into the breakfast room, and there sitting at the table was this man whom we'd left in Gander dead drunk. And so he looked a bit washed out, but he didn't - he wasn't drunk then. And I went over to the table, said, 'Can I join you?' and he said 'Yes', and I said, 'You know, I can't understand it, there you were dead drunk in Gander and here you are, you arrived before us. You must have left after we did.' He said, 'Oh yes', he said, 'I'm ferrying Mosquitoes across the ...' and of course they had to do it almost without instruments, and a lot of people were lost including Amy Johnson who you remember lost her life doing that, ferrying as they called it. So he was a ferry pilot, and he said, 'I couldn't do it unless I was drunk'.

Is there anything out of your life that you really regret?

Yes, I think the thing that needles at the back of my mind is this, first of all the fact that I never saw as much as I should have of my wife and children when they were young, so that I ... for so long I was an absentee father as it were, more or less, except for short visits and or writing. The second thing is that I still feel very unhappy about having been involved in the development of the nuclear weapon, and all that it means for the future of mankind if it ever gets out of control. And with the world, we always hoped after the last world war, then the United Nations was established, that at last we were going to have a united world, a world that was going to work together and we were going to have no more of these bloody wars through which we'd just passed, and then the nuclear weapon came along, and changed the whole situation. But not only did that happen, but the world instead of being united becomes more and more fragmented. Now we've got - Russia is broken up, we've got troubles in the Middle East wanting, people wanting to be separated, even Australia there are Torres Island natives now want to be separate from Australia, and well I don't know what the future will happen - will bring about our Aborigines you never know, they may in the end demand, with brute force, their territory back again.

So you don't feel very optimistic about the future.

I don't feel optimistic about the future, at the present time I think that the - and the reason the fundamental reason is the economic problems of the world. The world is now one because of communications, and one can move from any one spot on the earth to any other spot on the earth in a day nowadays. One can communicate with - between any one spot on the earth near any other spot on the earth instantaneously now, with microwaves and with - particularly with fibre optics, and the world, and this all means that the world's really a unit not a - not a separate set of countries, and yet, we're dividing ourselves more and more into different sets of countries, and the islands even north of us - all of them want to be their own bosses and have their own airline and their own thing, at somebody else's expense of course. It's all to me evidence of this grasping attitude of mankind, always, his desire for money and profit, for possessions, for being the - not the user of the wonders of this earth, but the master of the whole of the wonders of this earth, and even of the whole universe.

Do you think this is fundamental to human nature?

I don't believe it is you know, I don't believe it is. I mean one sees so much of kindness, of decency, of pity amongst people towards those other people whom they know, even though they are racially different or something of that sort. But one doesn't see that attitude between governments. This is the trouble I think, so long as we have separate nations and governments with people doing the governing who have ambitions, we'll be in trouble.

Do you have any vision for how that might be overcome?

Only by I suppose, by some sort of world government, by some sort of agreement amongst the nations, the peoples of the world, that they will live in peace. By the complete banishing of weapons of mass destruction, of war as a whole, and indeed the outlawing of all forms of violence, because we breed violence you know, we breed violence. There's not a - no place more violent than the rugby field, it causes as many cases of brain damage for instance and of incapacity as do a lot of other things, like motor accidents and so on. And it's this obsession with the motor car at the moment, and with other toys, that are coming along, like computers and so on, that we invent and then abuse. We use them for the wrong purposes, and this is what makes me pessimistic about the future. That I believe myself that the increase in our knowledge of nature, both of dead matter and of living matter is - has been disastrous because of the uses that are made of it. Whereas the knowledge is wonderful and beautiful and wonderful to behold and to think about. For instance the problem of human heredity and the DNA in the human body, it's wonderful to know all these things, but when you start mucking about with it, it's a different story.

If you had your time over again, would you be a nuclear physicist?


What would you have done?

I don't know, I think if I was starting out today, I think I'd either be an astronomer or a biophysicist.

What would - what would your interest in biophysics be? Where does that ...

Well you see as I told you earlier that I was always brought up as in [a] do-gooder family and also started out with the idea of being a doctor, and I've always kept my - a deep interest in biological things, expressed nowadays in my feelings that we've got to try and preserve some of the natural ecology of this wonderful country, which - and the whole of the natural fauna and flora of this country are rapidly disappearing, we're losing something like three hundred species of plants every year, and an even greater number of insects, and the order of forty or fifty different kinds of animals and birds. They just become extinct as a result of our activities.

You said that you felt that we interfere too much, that as human beings, when we get knowledge we want to use it to interfere in nature. And yet in a way that's that was the exciting work you were doing, during those years with Rutherford in that you were interfering with the atom to create something additional that wasn't there before.

Oh, but you've always got to interfere with something, that's totally different from what I've been talking about. We weren't - we weren't trying to make money by poking something into the middle of a nucleus and the nucleus, of course, is a bit of inanimate matter, one wasn't destroying life by investigating the interior of the atom. No it was - it was curiosity about the whole structure of the universe, that is from the most minute particles that we know of like the neutrons and the neutrinos and so on, to the most massive galaxies in the space around us in the universe. Some of them very much bigger than our own galaxy, which is the Milky Way.

So you see a connection really between what you were doing with the atom, with astronomy and with the DNA and the fine work in biology.

Yes. Yes. That's right.

In understanding the patterns...

That's right.

.. of life and the universe.

Yes. That's right.

And yet, in that exploration there are these dangers, the dangers that you encountered in the way that knowledge was being used to make the bomb.


But wouldn't you see similar dangers in the exploration of the DNA? What could be the ...

Oh much - I think much more far reaching dangers. It is possible to imagine ways of - of getting agreement not to ... nation, between nations not to use nuclear weapons, because after all they're destructive of everything, of everything constructive and of life and of the means of production and so on, whereas DNA, the nasty parts about that are interfering with nature in what I might call unnatural ways. Of producing creatures that do not exist on earth. Producing species of animal that are completely new, and particularly of cloning animals that we find useful, beef cattle for instance can be cloned quite easily and one can have a - a thousand cattle that are all identical twins and ...

What do you think of that?

I hate the idea! See for me to be so against nature, so against it 'cause in nature everything's always changing. Even with plants the - you - every now and again you get what they call sports - growing from a seed, there's been a mutation that's taken place, either for physical reasons like chemistry or, or heat or cold or because of cosmic radiation falling on the ... and one'll get a different sort of wheat appear or a different sort of orange, it's a - it's a ...

So you get the variety without having to interfere and then making everything boringly the same.

Yes it's this, that side of it that's wrong for me, to one's interfering for the wrong reasons. See nature, unless the resultant creature or plant can adapt to it's surroundings, can feed on the food which is available, can suffer the extremes of climate where it is and so on, unless that happens it dies, and most mutations therefore, because of these reasons, are unsuccessful. It's only a few that nature accepts and puts into circulation as it were. Whereas when you're doing it artificially you use artificial ways of making them viable, and of keeping them alive.

You're an individual who stood out from the crowd, you've succeeded beyond the level that most people succeed. How do you explain that, what do you think it is about you as an individual that's enabled you to do these things?

Cussedness. Ah - determination I think is the only thing. The only - I think is that's - I feel about old age, I often wonder about old age in my nineties but I realise the only way to live is just to keep on keeping on. There's no ... once you give in you're lost, and the wonderful thing I think is that I've managed to keep my curiosity and wanting to learn all the time, I'm still a student in other words, and I hope I remain so until I die.

Have you had any guiding principles? Looking back with hindsight at the pattern of your life, have there been any basic principles that you feel you've brought to bear on decisions and problems?

Only I think respect for the truth, that it's absolutely essential in scientific work, yeah. Once you begin to fake things or mess about, you're lost and this has happened and there's been some very nasty things in science as a result of people making unclaimed ...

Scientific fraud.

Well scientific fraud or perhaps they were mistaken, sometimes and then they're proven wrong, which is ... that's that's acceptable, that's a natural thing. But fraud of course is a thing that's wrong, and unfortunately fraud in science is very rapidly detected and people are really - if somebody discovers something new, then somebody else will repeat the experiment to see whether it was alright, and inevitably one is found out, if one's done or claimed wrong things I think.

It's a bit of a comfort to the rest of us ...

It is that retribution is quick.

Now you say that in old age, you think that the recipe is just to determinedly keep on hanging in there, do you think at all now about death and about what that's going to mean, and whether there's anything beyond it?

No, I'm afraid that death doesn't worry me. Ah, for one thing I have experienced so much of death during the war and of course I've had the tragedies in my own family. But in addition to that, I am as I've ... keep remembering that the oldest of a family of five boys, and I'm the only one still alive, and that amazes me at times, worries me sometimes too 'cause it seems so grossly unfair, that I should be here, and they, who were younger and could be doing far more for the world today than I can possibly do, are dead.

Do you think there's an afterlife?


You feel quite sure about that?

I feel quite certain about it. I am prepared to believe that there is - there are things that we don't understand about nature, and there are some sort of ... the beliefs, for instance, of Buddhism rather attract me, the idea the there's a reservoir of life for instance and that when you die you ... as Fitzgerald said in his poem about the Buddha. The last line reads: 'and then the dew drop fell into the silent sea', and I rather like the idea of the dew drop of life joining all the rest of life in the universe. You see this is one of the things that still worries me, well not worries me in the sense that it, oh, you know that has any ...

(interrupting) Worries you emotionally but mentally it ...

It - mentally it worries me yes, that we have not the faintest idea of the difference between living and dead matter, and what life is is something that's still completely unknown, and why it should be on this one planet Earth in the solar system and not on any of the other planets that circulate around the Sun is the - as we know now from our space exploration, is something that's strange, it does make this earth something unique. And there are probably other earths somewhere or other around other suns in the universe, but they're all so far away that it's difficult to imagine making any contact with those other living beings. The other thing that of course that I often think about is this phenomenon of consciousness, of being aware of one's surroundings and so on, and it wasn't of course until speech was invented, until that people were able to communicate with one another about nature, and about things, and about themselves, that must have been a wonderful moment. But it wasn't until the written word was invented that history was possible, and that only happened at the time when civilisation began about ten thousand years ago, so it's all very recent, all these properties of man, and science of course is only about three hundred years old in it's present form. So that we are living in a world that's so - moving so rapidly towards understanding that I feel that someday perhaps we might understand the difference between living and dead matter, but at the present moment it is the big puzzle.

So after a lifetime of scientific enquiry, you're left with the big mystery still unsolved.

That's right. That's right the big mystery is this phenomenon of life.

Now you said that you wanted to be remembered as a good Aussie bloke, what is that?

I - I really don't know, I think it was just a spontaneous expression, I'd - in other words what I mean is I don't want to remembered for the ... you remember that Shakespeare had Anthony say in Julius Caesar ah, 'The evil that men do, lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.' Well I, I wouldn't like somebody to dig up some dirt, and there might be some dirt in my past that I'm unconscious of, such as being concerned with the development of the nuclear weapon, and I might be cursed for it. I'd - I hate that idea, I don't want to be cursed by anybody.

What good is the good that you'd most want to be remembered for? Would it be your contribution to society as a whole? Or would it be your contribution to science, or both?

No. My care. My love for the whole of nature.

Your love for nature.

Nature as a whole. Right from the universe down to the nucleus of the atom and even the constituents of the nucleus of the atom. I have an innate love and care for that, and particularly for anything with life. I think life is such a wonderful phenomenon that I'd like to be thought of as somebody who cared therefore, for instance about the ecology of this wonderful country in which we live, and the fact that many of the living creatures and plants are disappearing because of our destructive activities. I would like to see that reversed and I would like to see people taking care of living creatures, rather than killing them.

Can we stop for a moment ... [INTERRUPTION]

What was the importance of radar in the war effort? Did it have a significant effect on the outcome?

Oh it was undoubtedly of great importance, very great importance indeed, 'cause it could be used to look at the ground and pick out objects that were, or cities or something, that were different from the surroundings, you couldn't see the individual people or animals or anything because the wavelength was still not short enough. But the - you could see bridges and rivers and pick out a city, so that was a great help to the bombing aircraft, but it was also of a great help to the fighter aircraft, because fitted in the nose of a fighter aircraft it enabled it to detect the bombers in the ... in the air, and to attack them. So that it was a very useful tool, and was brought to great perfection by the services and the the commercial companies who were doing the work of developing it. But from my point of view, the really important thing that emerged as a result of the development of microwave devices was that at last one could put radar on the aeroplane. Now today radar is on - in the nose of every civilian aircraft, but - you know [the] black nose that you see on every aircraft is where the radar is. It can see any object in its path, any other aeroplane, and avoid it, it can see the terrain and the waves on the sea, it knows where it is as a result, it requires also always of course alertness on the part of the crew and this apparently wasn't there when that New Zealand aircraft flew into Mt Erebus. But it should prevent that sort of thing completely from happening, and nowadays when the whole thing's electronic, it may be that it would be different.

You're work in developing the magnetron and the microwave had another result after the way that you weren't quite ...

Oh the commercial result and a domestic result in that it is the heart of the microwave oven, the magnetron it just sits there and generates microwaves of wavelength about 20 centimetres, and cooks up anything that absorbs radiation.

It's a pity you didn't have a patent on it.

Well there was a patent on it of course, taken out by the British Admiralty, but what happened, there was a sort of a convention that if you were working for the services, you got paid ten shillings for the patent. Which then was of course was the property of the government, but in any case it was an - it turned out to be an unpatentable thing. I mean it was - it was so useful that as Dr Langmure and the General Electric Company in America said to me, 'You know, we don't take any notice of such patents. We go ahead and utilise the information if we want to. If somebody likes to sue us they can, they'll lose a hell of a lot of money', he said, 'In the process, and they know it, and therefore they will not sue us'. [INTERRUPTION]

Oh yes. Yes that was a ...

Was it easy going to work out how you could use this? Did you have any difficulties?

Oh once we had the magnetron the way of way of using it was quite obvious to us. For one thing we had to go back, of course, to the crystal detector because ordinary valves were useless for microwaves because they're bigger than the microwave itself. And we had to go back to crystals, and it was the crystals in the hand - the crystal detector in the hands of Bell Telephone Laboratories that led to the transistor, because the Bell Telephone people put a third electrode on the crystal and influenced the flow of the current and that was the transistor, it became more and more elaborated but ... So the birth of modern electronics and the chip and everything else was the result of using crystals in the war for microwave purposes. So microwaves had offshoots as it were, that were very useful, in addition to the microwave oven.

And you worked it out from first principles by going back to basics, but you also had a bit of fun when you tried to actually put it into working order in the aircraft didn't you?

Oh yes oh yes. It was - there was all - there were all sorts of problems that we met. I remember on one occasion I was with a chap named Skinner who's a very good scientist and we were in a naval aircraft, and we were trying to find the ... detect the submarine's periscope sticking out of the water in one of the firths in Scotland. And it was terribly rough, and poor old Skinner got so terribly sick, and then I went down to - we had it right in the nose of the aircraft, you had to crawl down to get it - I went down to it and the technician who was with us had managed to knock the rubber thing through which you looked so as to keep the light - surrounding light out - knock it off this seeing cone of plastic or rubber, and had stuck it back again with some cement, and the smell of this cement when I leant down, put my head down and inhaled a great smell of this solution from the cement made me sick as well, so we both succumbed ...

and some people even ...

... and we were never able to finish the experiment.

[end of interview]