Australian Biography - Sir Marcus Oliphant

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: Life is such a wonderful phenomenon that I'd like to be thought of as somebody who cared.

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Oliphant
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Oliphant sync: 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, hate that idea, I don't want to be cursed by anybody.

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Photo a young Oliphant
Tilt fades up Sir Marcus Oliphant Born 1901 Nuclear Physicist

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: When I was young, I was always fooling about in the shed at the back of the garden with bits of wire and bits of wood and one thing or another, making what my brothers called his raggedy baggedy engines. [laugh] And I always pottering about, with my hands. I loved doing things with my hands and one of my greatest memories is of my -- at my suggestion for a Christmas present -- I was given by my father a plane for planing wood, for smoothing wood, and it was the wrong sort of plane and I was so disappointed and I just had to pretend that it was, it was alright.

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Photo Oliphant parents

Oliphant v/o: My father was a civil servant, a very dignified almost Victorian person, very cultured man, very well read man, so was my mother,

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Oliphant sync: but he was never -- except that he was very fond of walking and we went for very long walks, hundreds of miles, and carrying our swags and sleeping on the, in the open and -- he was very fond of that and that taught me a very great deal about nature which I've been aware of ever since. For instance, I remember once, we were walking along and it was a windy day and the trees were waving very much in the breeze, and I said isn't there a danger that they'll break in the wind and he said to me oh no son, no son, that's the way they take their exercise. [laugh]

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Photo Oliphant farther

Oliphant v/o: My father was a very religious man,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: and I grew up to be an, oh, a choir boy at the church and then an altar boy, altar server, and that continued until I went to university.

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Oliphant v/o: Now in 1925, Rutherford, who was the head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: he visited his old mother. He was a New Zealander you see and he went to New Zealand to visit his old mother and of course in those days one travelled by ship and when the ship called in at Adelaide, Rutherford came up to the University and gave a lecture, and he talked about what was going on in the Cavendish Laboratory, and the sort of things that were happening and the people who were working there and he was so generous in his giving his praise to the people who were his students who worked with him and doing the jobs, that I thought to myself then, that's the man I want to work with. So from then on my efforts were directed towards trying to get a scholarship to go to Cambridge, which I managed in 1927.

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Oliphant v/o: It took seven

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weeks from Adelaide to Liverpool

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and then took the boat train to London, and in London

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: Rose, my wife, had relatives with whom we, stayed for a day or two while I got, while we got our bearings and I went down to Cambridge and explored the situation a bit. Got myself enrolled in Trinity College, and went and saw Rutherford, who was very kind to me. And he -- it was rather amusing -- he said to me, now he said, go round, after he had a talk to me as to what I wanted to do and so on, go round and talk to some of the boys, and I said the boys? Who do you mean? He said, all, go down the basement, talk to J. J. Thompson, J. J. Thompson was the man who discovered the electron and was Rutherford's teacher, he was still working down the basement. And you'll find Astn the mass spectrograph man next door and then he gave one to two other names that to me were just sort of text book names and I went, made this round with great trepidation, but found everybody very kind and helpful

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Oliphant v/o: and that was my introduction to Cavendish Laboratory and Cambridge.

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: And what work were you doing?

Oliphant sync: I was doing some work on the facts produced when positive ions hit a metallic surface of various kinds, and this is a process that's important in the discharge of electricity through gases which J. J. Thompson's great specialty. So I was in good company, in those early days. But then very soon after that,

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Photo Rutherford and Oliphant

Oliphant v/o: Rutherford asked me whether I'd like to work with him and of course this was a great honour and he

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Oliphnat

Oliphant sync: felt that he wanted to do some experiments which were like those that were being done by Cockcroft and Walton in the laboratory. Cockcroft and Walton together had, for the first time, produced the disintegration of an atom by artificially accelerated particles. And this was the first time that the atom had been split artificially, and this of course excited Rutherford and he wanted to do some experiments which he thought of in that field and he wanted some technical, somebody technically good to help him. And he thought that I was the right person. So he asked me to work with him and that was absolutely heaven working with him, actually with him, it was, cause he was full of ideas all the time, most of which of course were nonsense, but every now and again there was gold amongst all that dirt and we got on famously together. And I had one or two research students working with me also. We set up equipment in a cellar in the old Cavendish, a room which we had to use because it could be blacked out, completely blacked out. And one detected the products of the, such formations of the atoms that were fired out like little bullets.

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Photo Oliphnat and other Scientist
Zoom out Lecture Theatre

Oliphant v/o: And, finding new things and one had the feeling that one was understanding, one was coming to

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Oliphant

Straight away a new world was opened to us. There were a new set of explosions, atomic explosions which were terrific in their intensity and in their, the number that took place, it was like entering a new realm of of star watching as it were, were looking at these scintillations.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: have knowledge of how matter was built up of how the, and then beginning to have ideas of how it all began, how creation took place.

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Hitler sync: [German]

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Oliphant v/o: When the war broke out,

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a lot of us

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were taken and

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initiated

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in to the very deadly secrets of radar.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: I was given the job of trying to produce electromagnetic way for very much shorter wavelength than were available at that time. That time, the shortest wavelength available was about a metre and a half and that a was produced with a tiny little valve called a micro pup, which didn't give much energy.

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Oliphant v/o: So we set to work. I got together a, carefully got together a small team of people and two of the boys

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: discovered that they could make resonators which were like a revolver, with

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Oliphant v/o: holes in a ring and slots that pointed towards a cathode inside. The whole thing made out of metal with just a blast to bring the power out

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: and this worked like magic. This was the magnetron,

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Oliphant v/o: and within 18 months or so,

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we'd shot our bomb,

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we'd got these things flying.

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We'd got

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radar working in the air, we'd got working it

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pointing search lights at aircraft at night,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: we'd got it working on ships,

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Oliphant v/o: we'd got it detecting ships

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at sea and

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all in 18

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months or two years.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: And then I thought, oh well, bugger it all, this is not really interesting work. This is work for engineers now. So I went back to the, the work on nuclear physics. Now the interesting thing is that working with me in the laboratory at that time were two German refugees, from Hitler's Germany.

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Oliphant v/o: One was named Piles the other one's name Frish, these two people together, of course they were enemy aliens,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: they weren't allowed to know anything about this secret weapon or radar you see. So they had to be kept out of that. So not being allowed to do, that they set to work to do some calculations about nuclear energy, about the possibility of getting nuclear energy, and, they -- lo and behold -- they came through with a paper, which they said that if one could separate the uranium

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Oliphant v/o: then one could make a bomb of enormous power and they calculated the amount of uranium

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: 235 that was required and also the explosive force that might be produced. And this was absolutely hair raising. Here were these two chaps not allowed to have anything to do with the secrets of radar, producing this paper on this possibility of making a nuclear weapon. So this paper was sent to the United States to inform them.

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Oliphant v/o: So I had to dash across to America in connection with the Magnetron, but while I

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: was there, I was asked to see what had happened to our report, the Piles Frish report, so I went to the, to Washington, to the Chairman of the American committee, who was the head of their department that was responsible for standards, their standards laboratory. And he was a real stick in the mud and he'd taken this report, thought it was a bit interesting, but had stuck it in his safe and hadn't circulated it to the other members of the committee. So I went straight away to see Bush and Connant, who were the President's scientific and technical advisers and both of them took the point of view, well this is very interesting but this if for the next war, not for this war. So still dissatisfied, I got on an aeroplane

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Photo Oliphant and Lawrence

Oliphant v/o: and went to see Lawrence whom I'd worked with you see and knew to be a live wire and a member of the committee.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: So I told him about this, and he was so upset that he got on the plane with me and we went back to Washington. Within a few days

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Title fades up 1944 Oak Ridge Tennessee Atomic Energy Installation

Oliphant v/o: the man had the project well on its way. And we moved to America, whole of the British team moved to America.

Interviewer v/o: Why were you so anxious

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: that this should get moving?

Oliphant sync: Because we had information from the Secret Service that the Germans were trying to produce a nuclear weapon.

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Oliphant v/o: It was quite clear to us

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that the thing was going to be successful.

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When we'd separate the isotopes of uranium and

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stocks of plutonium, the theory there was no

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doubt about it at all in our minds,

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Photo Oliphant

and one had no doubts whatever about the horror of the situation.

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Titles fade up Hiroshima August 6 1945

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Newcaster v/o: We are able to note the Atomic bomb was drop on Hiroshima,

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a military base.

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We won the race of discovery

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against the Germans.

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We shall continue to use it until we completely

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destroy Japan's

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power to make war.

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Oliphnat

Interviewer o/s: How did you feel at that time, what was your initial reaction?

Oliphant sync: Ah, well there was a feeling of utter frustration in that the message hadn't got across that it had been used and used against civilian cities and that all the moral scruples had been thrown side by a so called Christian nation. Not by the Japanese or by infidels of any kind, but by Christian nation, or nations because England was behind America in all this. And a feeling at the same time that, well, perhaps we were wrong, perhaps this ends the war,

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Oliphant v/o: and saves lives.

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So at the moment, there was that sort of

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mixture of feelings that one had.

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: 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...

Oliphant sync: That's right.

Interviewer o/s: ...the death of other people.

Oliphant sync: Yes.

Interviewer o/s: How successful were you in reconciling the two? How did you manage during that time, inside yourself?

Oliphant sync: Well I don't know, you've got to develop a double personality, you know, and think one way one moment and then another way the next. You never do reconcile it.

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Title fades up 1962 Bikini Atoll - Pacific Ocean

Oliphant v/o: When the Americans let off their first hydrogen weapon,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: it so horrified Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, that he, together with Einstein, wrote a, 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.

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Oliphnat

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 chairmen of these bodies, Australia provided the first chairman for the first meetings,

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Photo Doctor Evatt

Oliphant v/o: it was Doctor Evatt, and, the first speech was given by

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: the American head of the American delegation

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Photo Oliphant and others at a UN meeting

Oliphant v/o: and then the next one would come on and then the next to

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speaker was Mr. Gromyko from Russia, and Mr. Gromyko

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: put the proposal -- his proposals were

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Tilt fades up 1948 UN Security Council Assembly

Oliphant v/o: very simple --

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he said Russia demands as number one priority

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that all existing

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nuclear weapons should be dismantled,

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and that no nuclear

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: 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 Oppenhiemer,

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Photo Robert Oppenhiemer

Oliphant v/o: who was the adviser to the American delegation on nuclear matters. Of course, having been the father of the nuclear weapon.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: 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 will tell my boss that that is what I feel. But I said you get your boss to, to do that he said so, matter of, interest, he said, I'll give you a bit of classified information. He said, the present time there are only three nuclear weapons in existence, and he said it would be take half an hour's work to take them apart, dismantle them. And he said, if the whole proposal failed, it would 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 Oppenhiemer, 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 round to me and irritably said, no, no, no, nothing of the sort, we might want to use them against them.

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Interviewer v/o: What do you see as the alternative

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: form of energy for the future?

Oliphant sync: Well I feel that nuclear power is the final answer, but nuclear power not on earth,

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Oliphant v/o: but in the sun's interior, and where it

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Oliphant

Oliphnat sync: hits the earth it contributes about one kilowatt of power per square metre.

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Photo Sun Raising

Oliphant v/o: If one collected

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: 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 all the energy for the whole of the world and one doesn't realise this, that the sun is such a magnificent nuclear reactor. There it is far enough away

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Oliphant v/o: to do us no harm.

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Photo Oliphant with a others at Research School
Title fade up 1950 Oliphant appointed Head of Research School of Physical Sciences, Australian National University

I set out to try and bring Australia into the age of modern physics,

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: and that meant of course trying to do experiments that were of the kind that were going on in Europe and America.

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Oliphant v/o: But it turned out to be too difficult a task.

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We didn't have in Australia the engineering companies to make the sort of equipment that was really

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required. I had to abandon that.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: I think I was a fool to come back, from the intellectual and professional point of view. I was told that I would ruin my research career and I certainly did, because there was so much administration, so many problems of finding members of staff and so on

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Photo Oliphant in sitting in his Robes

Oliphant v/o: for an outback place like Canberra, that it absorbed the whole of my time, for 20 years.

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: But you created an environment in which others were able to flourish,

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Photo Sign 'Research School of Physical sciences'
tilt down Oliphant under sign

Interviewer v/o: you must have taken some satisfaction from that?

Oliphant v/o: Oh this is true, this is true. There's

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: some satisfaction in that.

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Photo Medal
tilt up Oliphant

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Photo Oliphant at Mic giving speech
Title fades up 1971, Oliphant becomes Governor of South Australia

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pan left Oliphant

Oliphant v/o: For the first two or three years

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Photo Oliphant shaking hands with man wearing Service Medals

it was fun --meeting all sorts of people, and one had

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Photo Oliphant greeting Prince Philip

of course to put up the royal family. One got to know them very well and other famous people who came along.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: I warned Mr. Dunstan when he asked me whether I would, he could put my name to the, forward to the Queen, as Governor that I wasn't prepared to be a, a military type Governor, that I was, would only go there if I was as free to speak on public questions and so on, as I'd had been in Canberra.

Interviewer o/s: And he accepted you on those terms?

Oliphant sync: Yes, yeah, indeed seemed to want me to do that.

Interviewer o/s: Do you think he lived to regret it?

Oliphant sync: Yes, I'm afraid he did. [Laugh]

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pan right to Oliphant shaking hands

Aide o/s: Mr. Johnson... Mrs Johnson... Mrs. Adrian Johnson.

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: I was a puppet, after a time and I was, that's all I was. In the morning, at breakfast time,

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Archival Oliphant at Breakfast table

Oliphant v/o: there was a foolscap piece of paper headed Orders of the Day,

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which told me exactly what I was doing and there was 10:10

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Archival Oliphant leaving the house and getting into Rolls

you see the Rolls would be at the front door and I would be going to such and such a place

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to do this, give a speech or to open a building or something of that sort. And

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: it, that sort of formality got me down a bit.

Interviewer o/s: You're not, you weren't used to following orders?

Oliphant sync: No, and nor was I used to being on time. [laugh]

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Photo of wedding cake

Interviewer v/o: You're an individual who stood out from the crowd. You've succeeded beyond the level that most people succeed.

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Oliphant

Interviewer o/s: How do you explain that? What do you think it is about you as an individual that's enabled you to do these things?

Oliphant sync: Cussedness. 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 90's but I realise that the only way to live is just to keep on keeping on. There's no -- once you give in you're lost.

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Oliphant

interviewer o/s: Do you think there's an afterlife?

Oliphant sync: No.

Interviewer o/s: You feel quite sure about that?

Oliphant sync: I feel quite certain about it. I'm prepared to believe that there is, there are things that we don't understand about nature, and there is some sort of, the beliefs for instance of Buddhism that rather attract me. The idea there's a reservoir of life, for instance, and that when you die, that is, Fitzgerald said in his poem about the Budda, 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

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Oliphant v/o: life in the universe. You see, this is one of the things that still worries me, we have not the faintest

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: 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, as we now know from our space exploration, is something that's strange. It does make this earth

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Oliphant v/o: something unique. So that we are living in a world that's moving so rapidly towards understanding that I feel that

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Oliphant

Oliphant sync: some day perhaps we might understand the difference between living and dead matter, but at the present moment, it is the big puzzle.

Interviewer o/s: So after a lifetime of scientific inquiry, you're left with the big mystery, still unsolved?

Oliphant sync: That's right, that's right. The big mystery is this phenomenon of life.

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Credits
Interviewer ROBIN HUGHES
Research GRAHAM SHIRLEY
FRANK HEIMANS
Camera PAUL ERE
Sound Recording TIM PARROT
Sound Mixing ROBERT SULLIVAN
Production Manager KIM ANNING

Production Accountant MEGAN GILMOUR
Production Co-ordinator JOANNE HOLLIMAN
Post Production Supervisor BRIAN HICKS

Film Australia would like to acknowledge the assistance of:
SIR MARCUS OLIPHANT
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
FILMWORLD RESEARCH
ABC TV ARCHIVES
NATIONAL LIBRARY OF AUSTRALIA
MIKE SPENCER F.A. LIBRARY
J
Producer/Director
Writer/Editor FRANK HEIMANS
Executive Producer RON SAUNDERS

Film Australia [Logo]

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