Australian Biography

Sir Marcus Oliphant - full interview transcript

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You were born in 1901, could you tell us a little bit about the circumstances of the family you were born in and what it was like.

Oh, my father was a civil servant, he worked clerical, civil servant, and he became that because he was a failed gold miner in Western Australia; he'd gone to Western Australia to make his fortune but hadn't done so. And he got married and to my mother who was nine years older than he was. My mother was a school teacher and had been the sole school teacher at the single teacher's school in Hawker in the north of South Australia. Her father was the headmaster of a school in Pultney Street in Adelaide, and I was the eldest child of five boys in the family. Ah, and I'm the only one left. Which is rather strange.

Where did you grow up?

In South Australia, but my primary schooling was in the hills. It was real countryside then in those days. I went to a one-teacher school, the headmaster of which was an Irishman named McCafferey, and he was a marvellous teacher. And I think, despite the fact that he had to deal with all these students of varying stages of education from zero to sixth class, he managed them extraordinarily well. So that when it came time for me to go to high school, and we hadn't moved down into the suburb - the city, I had no feeling when I went to high school that I was in anyway less well off than those who'd been educated in the state schools in Adelaide itself.

Did you do well at school? Were you a natural scholar?

No, no I was never a natural scholar for two reasons; first of all I was a very near-sighted, short-sighted and this wasn't realised for some time, I always wanted to sit in the front desk and ... [INTERRUPTION]

Did you do well at school? Were you a natural scholar?

No, no I was a - I was always interested in school, interested in my lessons and so on, but I never did very well, first of all because I was short-sighted and couldn't see the blackboard or the teacher very well even when I got glasses, 'cause of this astigmatism it was a bit difficult. But also I'm completely deaf in the left ear, and you notice I'm here wearing a hearing aid, and for that reason also I missed so much of what was said by the teacher. But in the end it was more or less self-education, and my mother having been a school teacher was a very great help to me.

How old were you when they discovered that you had these two disabilities?

Oh, they discovered that I was - about my sight early, I don't remember when, but I do remember the discovery of my deafness, it was made by the ... I was at Goodwood School and it was made by the nursing sister who visited the school and who looked at the students, and talked to the students. And I remember her making me stand in an open space and then she - with my back to her - and then she, well, she walked backwards speaking to me all the time and I had to hold my hand up when I could no longer hear her.

Very precise and scientific.

Yes. Yes.

And at home, what kind of a person was your father. He was, you said, a civil servant.

Well he was a a very dignified, almost Victorian person, with ... very cultured man, very well-read man; so was my mother. And I got my love of reading I think largely from them, and their advice as to what I should read and so on. And also he was a student all his life he was ... Although he was a lowly civil servant he took a great interest in the Workers Educational Association: WEA is that what it's called? and in the end became a lecturer and ... in economics and things of that sort to the WEA classes in South Australia. And he kept up this interest 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'.

So you learned a lot about the Australian bush.

Oh yes, oh yes.

And what other values and beliefs were part of the household?

Oh he was, my father was a very religious man, and I grew up to be a choir boy at the church and then an altar boy - altar server and that continued until I went to the University.

So it was mainstream Anglican religion.



Yes, High-Church Anglican.

And were there any other things that were legacies from those early days that you had as the foundation of your education and you ...

Well my father was very keen for me to be a clergyman. And he arranged for - I think because he rather felt that he would have liked to have been one, so he got me tutored at home and at a friend's of his place, in both Latin and Greek, and by the time I went to high school I was quite fluent in both Latin and Greek. I've kept my Latin as a result of my experience in Cambridge of course where almost everything's that can possibly be in Latin was in Latin in my time. But I've retained some of my Greek, but I'm not fluent in Greek any longer - at, you know, old Greek of course, not modern Greek.

And back in the classroom, did you ever get any better? Were you ever the boy who came top?

Only in Latin and at times in essay writing I used to come top quite often. I liked writing and I liked writing essays.

So a certain imagination was evident at this early age even though ...

Yes, yes, I suppose that's what it was. But I was never, I was never a good student, I was never top of class for anything of that sort. I was always in the middle range of ...

Have you ever thought that maybe creativity and imagination is as important in scientific discovery as some of the other more conventional ways of going about things?

Oh, I think it's more important that anything else. I think if one's just going to do a job in science, then one never going get very far. One's got to have imagination and try to think how science works, how it might be - how it might be and then set to work to prove that it was - was that way or find out to your consternation that it wasn't that way. Hmmm.

So when did the fact that you were going to be remarkable as a scientist begin to emerge? Was it while you were an undergraduate?

I think it was 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.' And I - oh, I always pottering about, you know, 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 alright. So I managed to get it changed to what I really wanted in the end.

Did your father encourage this interest in working with your hands, or was it a bit disappointing to the man who wanted you to be a clergyman?

Oh no, he - he neither encouraged nor discouraged. He was quite pleased if I made him some bookcases for his books 'cause being a great reader - he was a great ... had a lot of books - or did some job like that; and I made things for my mother in the kitchen and one thing and another, potted around. And garden furniture and things of that sort, using natural wood not ... which I couldn't afford, of course. I had to go into the bush and cut down some saplings and peel the bark off them and then construct a table or something of that sort out of it.

What did the raggedy baggedy engines actually do?

Oh they were - just made noises and so on. They were ... you pulled wires and things moved and so on, and I had all sorts of - developed all sorts of secret ways of locking the door so that my brothers couldn't get in and play around with what I'd been making. You know, you'd have to sort of walk around the back and pull a wire in order to open the front door, and things of that sort.

What kind of influence did your mother have on your early years.

Oh my mother had far more influence on me in reality than my father. She was a natural teacher and she just did it in a natural sort of way. And it was ... you know if I got a very bad report from school, 'cause in those days we had what they called a sort of report book or what it was called, but it was something in which every lesson of the day - your performance was marked down by the teacher. And each week you had to have this week's work signed by a parent. And if it was bad, it was always to my mother that I took it rather than to my father.

What made you decide to do science at University?

Well, as I said, I was destined originally to be a clergyman, but I didn't like that idea in the end, although I quite enjoyed my - when I was young I quite enjoyed my religion. As I said, I was a choirboy and then an altar server and so on.

What did you enjoy about it most?

I don't know, the ceremony I think. I think it was that, more than anything, than any sort of belief but it was, yeah, yeah, I didn't mind it. It was something that was expected of me and I did it and it wasn't unpleasant, let's put it that way. But then I decided that no; but still being a member of a - what the Americans would call a do-gooder family, I decided I'd be a doctor. So I started out on a medical course, and then the Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry, a man named [Thorburn] Brailsford Robertson, who had worked in Toronto with the discoverer of the cure for diabetes - one of the first great discoveries of that sort - who was a very ... he was a very tall man and a very nice ...

(interrupting) Who's he?

... man, Brailsford Robertson, and he and I got on very well together. Then he asked me to help him to do an experiment, because I was interested in gadgetry and ... So the experiment was to prove whether or no animals made any direct use of the nitrogen in the atmosphere, or whether it all came through proteins in the food. And we had to keep mice for several generations in an atmosphere that was free of nitrogen, where the nitrogen was replaced with the inert gas called argon which exists in the atmosphere, but which you can separate and get in bottles. And the question was to so arrange the experiment that the mice that lived in an enclosure or an airtight enclosure, with an arrangement whereby they could be fed without letting in any air - where the atmosphere was measured - the ratio of the gases was measured continuously and adjusted automatically to be right, the concentration of oxygen right, and, of course, to remove the products of their food eating and so on without disturbing the atmosphere, and the - both gaseous in form of water vapour and carbon dioxide which was breathed out by the animals - and any other noxious effluvia had to be removed and this meant chemistry of bubbling the gas through various solutions and so on. And it all was quite a fascinating task for me. And in the end I decided that's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be a doctor I wanted to be a scientist.

And what implications did this have for your course, you had to change course then?

Well then, we were a poor family, and and my parents couldn't afford to pay the fees. In those days one paid fees at the university, it wasn't free. But I discovered that in the physics department of the university, there was a a lowly post going called a cadetship, which paid you ten shillings a week and you were able to take one course at the university also.

So ten shillings a week bought one of the world's greatest physicists.

Yes. Well I - it was enough to pay for my keep, I gave it to my mother and it paid for my keep and my train fares. In those days ten shillings was quite a bit. I think my father earned about something like four or five pounds a week which would indicate, that with a family of five boys, it was - ten bob wasn't too bad.

So it really was for that economic reason that you went to physics rather than some other subject.

Yes I ... also my father had a friend named Schlanck who was a manufacturing jeweller and during the Christmas holidays from my last year at school, I worked in his factory making jewellery and I was a very lowly - had [a] very lowly job like melting the silver or gold or the gilding metal to cast into various shapes or roll into various shapes, and sweep the floor and do that sort of thing.

So this was the beginnings of your great hobby, silversmithing.

Yes, well ... no, the real beginning of my hobby was that I decided to, remembering watching the men doing the actual jewellery work which I never did when I was there; I never reached that stage only being there for a month or so. I decided when I got married that I'd make our wedding ring and this was the beginning of my interest in jewellery. I discovered that I liked doing it.

So you went into physics and you started a course and you were able, therefore, to shift your direction away from medicine towards physics, at what ...

(interrupting) Ah both sciences at that stage, but what I didn't like about medicine in particular was that a medical course is almost entirely learning by rote and there's nothing to think about in it. You've just got to learn things and I - I felt that this wasn't for me. I liked something, when this opportunity came to do some biochemistry I thought it was marvellous, you see, to really think about things rather than just learn that proteins were molecules with a certain sort of structure and sugars were a different kind of thing and so on.

And so at this stage you really had a confidence in your own ability to find a way through things to be able to take some charge of the way you were going to think about a problem.

I don't think that that ever occurred to me. I don't think that the future was something that was the future and I was quite content to potter around and do things which interested me.

But you were exploring them in your own way.

Oh yes, yes. But I had no great ambitions at that stage. Gradually I became - I never did extremely well in my course in physics. I did come top of the second year physics class and the - but then third year I didn't do too well, but I was allowed to go on and do honours physics and I did get a first class honours degree, and then pottered about doing a bit of research which I was rather interested ... Strangely enough the best lectures that I had on the properties of radioactive materials, which fascinated me - radium, were given by the Professor of Chemistry, Professor Renny, rather than by the Professor of Physics. He made it very interesting, the whole of the changes that took place in this material, radium, as it gradually step-by-step changed into lead, lead of mass 206, which differed from ordinary lead. And so I thought that the first stage of radioactivity, of course, was with uranium, and uranium changes by emission of an electron into what's known as 'uranium X'. It's ... I thought to myself that perhaps it would be possible to put an electron back again into uranium X and thereby transform it back again into uranium. So I spent a lot of time and effort on bombarding this material with electrons and sort of x-ray tube with only a large old-fashioned induction coil to produce the high voltage that I needed. The results were ... none - negative, they were - at first I thought I got some changes, then looking more carefully into it I discovered that it was just that I was increasing the area of the surface and therefore getting more radioactivity out. But that introduced me to red radioactivity and to nuclear physics and so in 1925 Rutherford, who was the head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and whose death was remembered last year in October, and I went to England in Cambridge. 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[to] 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 [were] 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.

It's interesting now to imagine the impact in 1925 of the visit of a great man, because we have them flying in and going and coming and going here now. It must have meant a lot in Adelaide in those days.

Oh it did, it meant - it was so inspiring to hear a man of that calibre talk when I'd been taught by you know, ordinary sort of professors who were quite good in their way but not Presidents of the Royal Society and so on, and the man who had unravelled the whole story of the way in which uranium changed, over time, into lead.

And so he became something of a hero to you, and someone ...

(interrupting) Very much so but he became a hero to me, and later on, much more than a hero. He was a man that I grew really to love, and who - see he was so inspiring, he was so, such a man of such incredible personality, that wherever he was, he always was the dominant figure. Not in any sort of domineering way, but simply through sheer personality. Ah it's ...

What did he think of you?

Well, for some reason or other, he took me under my [sic] wing and before I left Australia I got married and the Rutherfords were very kind to both my wife and me: they were New Zealanders and we were Australians - I suppose they had some sort of feeling for fellow - but they rapidly became more than that. We were treated more or less, in a year or two after arrival there, as their children, rather than their - as his - only a student.

So we've got a bit ahead of our story there, but to go back, how did you manage to get the scholarship or to get the invitation or whatever it was you needed to get?

There was a remarkable man who was a lecturer in physics in Adelaide, named Roy Burdon, Dr Roy Burdon. And he was doing work on the surface tension of mercury. This means, on the surface of any liquid there is a a force acting which you've got to divide in order to go through the liquid. And this surface tension, this tendency of the surface to cling to itself and form a smooth surface - in the case of mercury of course it's a metallic surface - and he was doing experiments on the spreading of liquids over the surface, and I was asked by him to help him to purify the mercury because you had to have really pure mercury. And to think of the hours and hours and hours that I spent boiling up mercury in flasks and distilling it, and blowing all the vapour of the mercury into the downstairs room in which - subterranean room in which this work was done, and yet I never got mercury poisoning. It's really quite remarkable because I've handled mercury all my life in experimental work.

The Oliphants must be tough.

Oh, oh no, or I ... either that or the effects of mercury have been grossly overstated perhaps. But it was that work that I then did a little bit of work on the surface tension of mercury as it was affected not by liquids but by gases, and of course in addition I had this work that I'd done with an attempt to remake radium - uranium out of uranium X, that - and I wrote these up and they were published in journals and these stood me in good stead when I applied for an 1851 overseas scholarship, and was lucky enough to be awarded one. But not only was I lucky enough to be awarded one, I was also awarded a free passage by ship to England which was awarded in those days to universities who realised that students had to go overseas to get experience at times. And one was awarded to each university, I think, in Australia, and there were not very many at that time, of course, and I was lucky enough to get one. So I promptly got married and had to pay my wife's fare, of course, to England and ...

How had you met your wife?

At the university there was a thing called ... that was a dance club or dancing club, you know the old-fashioned dancing where one wore a black tie and it was all done in a very proper fashion. And one had the Professor of Anatomy, a man named Wood Jones, and his wife, who had two daughters who belonged to this, and they turned up as chaperones always to the dance club - and I did. It was there that I met my wife.

What did you like about her?

I don't know, you can't say what attracts you to a person, but I liked her - I think I liked her long hair. She had her hair hanging down her back and that was one thing that I liked.

And after you were married, how long did it take you to get on the ship to England? You set out on this long voyage to England.

It took seven weeks from Adelaide to Liverpool; it was a Blue Funnel ship which berthed in Liverpool. Blue Funnel Line, like the Cunard Line, was based there in Liverpool which in those days was a great port of call, and then it took seven weeks. We called at Cape Town, Durban and Tenerife in the Channel Islands - in the Canary Islands, and then Liverpool, and then took the boat train to London. And in London 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 at 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 around', after he'd had a talk to me as to what I wanted to do and so on, 'Go around and talk to some of the boys'. And I said, 'The boys? Who do you mean?' He said, 'Oh, go down to the basement and 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 in the basement. 'And you'll find Aston, the mass spectrograph man next door.' And then he gave one or two other names that to me were just sort of textbook names, and I went and made this round with great trepidation, but found everybody very kind and helpful, and that was my introduction to ... I just loved Cambridge when I first stepped there, it's my spiritual home still. And I am a - I became in the end a fellow of St John's College, and though I graduated from Trinity College, I got a fellowship in St John's College ... [INTERRUPTION]

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