Australian Biography: Sir Marcus Oliphant
Sir Marcus Oliphant (b. 1901, Adelaide, SA) is a founding father of the Australian National University in Canberra and a former Governor of South Australia. In 1927 he became part of a team at Cambridge University, whose task was to split the atom. After the bomb was used against civilians in Hiroshima, he went on to devote his considerable scientific talent and energies to finding peaceful uses for atomic power. He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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'.
Oh yes, oh yes.
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.
Yes, High-Church Anglican.
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.
Only in Latin and at times in essay writing I used to come top quite often. I liked writing and I liked writing essays.
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 ...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ...
... 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
(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 ...
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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 ...
When you've got a moment, I'd like you to - in relation to this interview, to read this letter. This is from a woman who was my secretary for eight years.
That's her name here.
And, after she had been Secretary for eight years, there was a conference on in La Jolla in California, which they wanted me to be present at, which was the opening of the new research laboratories of General Motors.
... and ... they would be opened by Niels Bohr the great theoretical physicist, and Niels Bohr had a habit of walking all the time he was speaking, and he'd suddenly sort of disappear almost into the distance, and he mumbled under his breath, so he wasn't very easy to hear. But these people had the answer, they built a pulpit, not only did they build a pulpit, but the pulpit had a gate on it and then they arranged microphones all the way around the edge of the pulpit, so that wherever he - whichever way he was facing he was facing a microphone. But the point about it was that I had this lassie Barbara Shanahan, they asked whether I could provide any secretarial assistance, so I asked her whether she would go, and she said yes, she'd love to, you see, and so she came along to the meeting, and at the meeting I introduced her to a chap who was an expert in cosmic radiation, and I lost her.
They made her - they made her start at once and - and I thought she'd be coming back with me, but didn't.
(speaks over Robin & Frank - continuing story)
Right. Well we're rolling now, so we'll be able to come back to pick up where we were in Cambridge, and I was going to ask you, you had been thinking, and dreaming and planning, and working towards getting to the Cavendish for so long, when you arrived was it everything that you were hoping for?
No it was - it was a remarkable experience. The Cavendish Lab was off a little lane called Freeschool Lane, that ran past St Bennett's Church and then behind Corpus Christie College and was a cobbled, an old cobbled lane - a curved lane. And there was a large door that opened onto what were known as the University Museums - all the laboratories in Cambridge in those days were known as museums - they were a big ... I suppose they started as museums and only became experimental with time ... and I walked along this lane and came to this door in which - which I'd been told led to the Cavendish Lab. The Cavendish Lab opened off the side of this way through the building, and I went up three or four steps and into a small foyer, not bigger than my kitchen, out of which there arose this - a wooden staircase up to the next floor, and also with some portraits on the wall, and also it was absolutely crammed full of bicycles. Everybody had parked their bicycle there so they wouldn't be stolen, because a bicycle left in the street was free-for-all. I mean you never - you know, I was continually going to the police station to pick out my bicycle from the hoards of bicycles that had been picked up by the police. Somebody'd borrow it and go from A to B and then just abandon the bike. But everybody, every student rode a bicycle in those days. But I went upstairs where I'd been told Rutherford's office was, to find myself going up along a corridor, which was just bare, wooden ... [INTERRUPTION]
Yes, it did because I discovered that it wasn't at all the sort of place that I'd expected. I'd expected you know, [a] beautiful laboratory. Instead of that it was a terribly old-fashioned building that was approached from a lane called Freeschool Lane that ran by - cobbled lane that ran past St Bennett's Church and around the back of Corpus Christie College - and the entrance to the Cavendish was off a sort of archway that went through to where most of the laboratories of the university were situated, called the Museums. Apparently University Museums historically I expect. But the Cavendish, I found, had a little foyer into which one moved, which was about the size of my kitchen here, a tiny little place with a wooden staircase going up to the next floor. A few portraits hanging on the wall, but the whole of the available floorspace, underneath the staircase and elsewhere, except the approach to the staircase and a way through was filled up with bicycles, dozens and dozens of them just jammed together. Because everybody in Cambridge in those days rode a bicycle and still does I find. When I got to the top of the staircase because I'd learnt that Rutherford's office was on the first floor, I found myself walking along a passageway with bare, wooden floors, and absolutely filthy windows, you know that old fashioned ... [INTERRUPTION]
Oh it was really filthy, the passageway, and Rutherford's office I discovered was up some two or three steps, after one had gone about halfway along this passageway. But I found he had somebody with him, but his secretary next door was a man, a man named Hailes. He pronounced it Hyles or Eyles without the 'h' punch. And Hailes was a man who hated smoking, and Rutherford was an inveterate smoker, he smoked a pipe all the time, and so that after he'd finished with the person he was with, I was ushered in by Hailes into the office, and I could scarcely see Rutherford because the place was so full of smoke, from his pipe. But I sat down in front of his desk and we had chatted away about what [were] my ideas about what I'd like to do, which he was very sympathetic with, and then he said to me, 'Well now you'd better go around and make yourself familiar with the laboratory, go and talk to some of the boys'. He said, 'You'll find ...' I said, 'Which boys?' He said 'Oh you'll find J. J.' - J. J. Thompson was the discoverer of the electron, and one of those Gods that lived up there for me, - 'down in the basement, he's still working down there, and you'll find Aston next door' - Aston was the man who first measured the masses of isotopes of atoms. And then he gave me a number of other names of equally distinguished people that I was to go and see, and I was very awed by this of course, but I made my way down, and there I ...
Well I'll - I've got a lot to say about Rutherford; I'll do that in a moment. But this was as it - at the momentary contact with him at the beginning which, as I said, I found him looking more like a farmer than a great physicist. His desk was even worse than this one, his table. But J. J. was very kind to me, so was Aston and so were the other people that I'd been told to talk to, and I found - felt at home immediately with these people, I didn't feel that I was a stranger. When I did feel a stranger was when, in the Cavendish they had each week a colloquium and at which some member of the staff or one of the workers in the laboratory gave a talk about what he was doing, trying to do, or else one was addressed by a distinguished visitor like Niels Bohr or Einstein, or Max Planck or Max Born and people of that sort, Heisenberg and so on, all of whom were just textbook names to me. But when talking to other students, the other research students, those who'd been prepared, had taken their first degree at Cambridge or at a British university, they just appalled me because they knew everything as far as I could see, and I knew nothing - I felt such an ignoramus. In the end I discovered that this was very much a put-on thing that some people liked to appear very wise, wherein they really weren't and it soon wore off. I soon felt at anyrate able to hold my own with them.
Yes. But the thing that acted mostly as a spur to me, was that Rutherford had an assistant whose name was Chadwick - James Chadwick. James Chadwick had been a prisoner of war throughout (telephone rings) the First ... I said it wouldn't work - it wouldn't go. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes Chadwick was Rutherford's offsider, he'd come from Manchester to - where Rutherford had been Professor - to the Cavendish immediately after the First World War. Now Chadwick had been a prisoner of war throughout the First World War because as a student, he'd been travelling in Germany when war broke out, and he was interned there, and this upset his internal mechanism; eating and so on was ever afterwards a bit of a strain for him, though he lived to be in his early eighties. But Chadwick was a rather a taciturn sort of person, but I liked him at once because he was so direct and honest. And I learnt that he was ... [his] actual personality was rather different from the way he expressed himself, because he used to go around the laboratory regularly every day to visit all, every research student, and find out how they were getting on and when he came to me, on the first occasion, he said to me, 'How are you getting on?' and I said, 'Well I'd rather have a high vac pump', and that's an electric motor driven vacuum pump, 'than this thing that I've got to turn a handle on, because I'm letting gas into the vacuum continuously and it's an awful chore having to turn this handle for half an hour every hour'. And he said, 'So you'd like a high vac would you?' and I said 'Yes'. He said, 'Well you just can't have one'. And I was a bit disappointed with this you see, and I went - I used to go home to lunch with my wife, and I cycled home to lunch and feeling a bit depressed went back to the Cavendish and there sitting on my table was a high vac pump.
And so I learnt that Caven ... that Chadwick's bite was much worse than his bark. He was about ten years older than me, but we rapidly became close friends and that lasted until his death. He was - became Master of Caius College in Cambridge, and we - I've just been to England a few weeks ago to a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Chadwick's birth, which was held in Liverpool where he was Professor for a time, and in Cambridge where he was - became Master at Gonville and Caius College. Gonville and Caius College, by the way, is the College, at the present, of that chap Hawking who writes the - wrote the book about time and so on, and who is an invalid.
Well there - at first I was a bit upset by the fact that everything was so filthy. I discovered in the end that the windows were washed and the floors were washed once a year.
I'd arrived at the wrong time. At the end of the year. They were washed as a matter of fact soon after I got there. But ...
That's right, and there was a Virginia creeper that grew sideways over the windows you know, and there were sort of strands of Virginia creeper across windows and so on, and all - it made it all rather depressing inside. Particularly on a winter's day, and winter was rapidly advancing when I got there, because the Cambridge year begins in October, the middle of October.
It was terribly stimulating intellectually. The people sharing the room with me, there were four people working in the room - large room, twice as big as this room - with me and I had one corner of it and others worked there, one of them was named Bullard. He was the son of the owner of the brewery in Norwich which made Bullard's Norwich Ales, and Bullard called across the lab one day and said to me, 'Say Mark, do alcohol and water mix?' Here was the son of a brewer!
Ah, but anyway we were all good friends, and got on so well together and there was an Australian who joined Bullard at doing some experimental work on the scattering of slow electrons, whose name was Massey. A man whose name was to become well known; later in life, he became Secretary to the Royal Society and things of that sort. Professor of Physics in London and ... Bullard you know, was measuring one of the magnetic fields which was produced by a coil of wire with a current passing through it, and this coil of wire, he didn't know how many turns there were on it, but he knew that he could measure the diameter of the wire, so he weighed it. The way he weighed it was to hang from some hooks on the ceiling, a piece of rope, put a piece of wood across, then he put Massey on one end - whose mass was known, and he put the coil of wire on the other side, and then adjusted the distances until he got a balance, and that way he weighed his coil in masseys. And ... I mean doing it. They were a wonderful group of people to work with.
Oh yes, I got on - got going very quickly thanks to this high vac pump which we'd already mentioned, which made all the difference in life to me.
I was doing some work on the effects 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 was J. J. Thompson's great specialty. So I was in good company, in those early days. But then very soon after that, in 1932 - well it's not so soon as that is it? It's three years later, four years later, when I'd been working for quite a long time on this with positive ions in various properties of positive ions, Rutherford asked me whether I'd like to work with him, and of course this was a great honor, and ...
Well he'd asked me because he 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'd 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 absolute heaven working with him; actually with him. It was - because he was full of ideas all the time, and 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 an 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 formations of the atoms that were fired out like little bullets through a mica window, a very thin mica window. They came out in the air and there they struck a zinc sulphide screen and gave a little flash of light when they - but in order to see this little flash of light, your eyes had to be dark adapted so you had to sit around for half an hour before you could begin experimenting at all while your eyes grew dark adapted, and then you looked down through this microscope at this screen and counted the number of particles that - number of flashes of light that you saw. You could only keep doing this for twenty minutes or so until your eyes got tired, and then you changed. On one occasion I was there counting with Rutherford, and with Chadwick, and Rutherford's technical assistant named Crowe and after some time, some considerable time counting these particles, Rutherford said to Crowe, 'How long have we been down here Crowe?' and Crowe said, 'Oh about an hour and a half sir'. 'Well it's time', he said, 'Lead me to that sink.' In the dark he couldn't find his own way. So - it was, you know, it was that sort of good fun. You sort of were part of a team, you worked together.
Oh it was, because it was so exciting. You never knew what you were going to see next, and you changed the voltage or changed the target or something and something totally different would happen. Then in the middle of these experiments, while I was working with Rutherford, in 1934 there came to the Cavendish a man from Berkeley in California, a very distinguished physical chemist whose name was Lewis, and he'd brought with him two samples - tiny little samples, only a fifth of a cubic centimetre each, sealed in a glass tube - of heavy water. He was the man who had discovered how one could extract and concentrate the heavy water, that is one part in sixty thousand or so of ordinary water is heavy water, but it's a very costly and difficult business to concentrate, that's why these samples were so small. But he handed them to Rutherford, and Rutherford, of course, handed them to me and straightaway I took the deuterium, as the heavy hydrogen is called, chemically out of the water and used it in our bombarding experiment, and straightaway a new world was opened to us, there were a new set of explosions, atomic explosions which were terrific in their intensity and in the number that took place. It was like entering a new realm of star watching as it were, when looking at these scintillations and then fortunately, there was a Welshman working in the Cavendish laboratory named Win Williams, and he had developed a technique for counting the particles electrically instead of using a - having to use the scintillation screen, and he gave us one of his earliest counting equipments which were made up in characteristic Cavendish manner. Each stage of the linear amplifier - there was six stages of it - was housed in a separate biscuit tin, and together with the batteries to operate the valve, there were old-fashioned valves in those days, no transistors at that time, and these made a pile of biscuit tins about that long you see, then one had a tube coming out of it that led to the ionisation chamber, and then at the other end, the output was put onto an oscillograph where the movements - the ionisation produced still being counted by eye was now counted by the deflections of the oscillograph. So one had a length of bromide paper, the same width as ordinary cine film that was fed through and the deflections of the oscillograph were recorded on this piece of bromide paper, which then had to be taken out and of course developed and then washed fixed and then washed, but Rutherford's so impatient that he would insist on looking at the record before it was washed you see, while it was still slimy from the fixing solution, and he usually tried to write on it and he'd drop ashes from his continuous smoking ah cigarette oh, generally a pipe, which he smoked, and in this pipe he smoked a tobacco which had been dried out in front of the fire at home, and it was like a volcano it there were ashes and sparks coming out of it all the time, and his wife was very upset because he always had holes burnt in his clothes as a result of the sparks from his pipe, but this made a mess of our lovely records, and we - it was sort of like this you see - waiting for him to allow us to put it back in the fixer and get it all properly finished; the record properly finished.
This is an amazing image we've got here of a place that with dusty windows, biscuit tins in the laboratory, and ash dropping out of the great master's pipe all over it, and yet amazingly interesting work was being done.
Well the problem arose, you see, of the interpretation of these things, and it was quite clear to us from the ionisation that was produced, we could distinguish between particles with one charge of electricity on them, and particles with two charges: elementary charges. And it was quite clear to us that most of the particles that we were seeing only had one electric charge on it, probably got their energies by measuring their range in air - the distance they went in air, and from our our experiments we knew, we calibrated this so that we knew what the energy was, and we found that there were two sorts of reactions taking place, one of them resulted in the production of a new sort of hydrogen, a very exciting discovery of a new sort of hydrogen of mass 3 - as we'd seen. Deuterium of mass 2 had been discovered and it was deuterium that we were using to produce this hydrogen of mass 3, but it was produced together with a particle with no electric charge, with one electric charge this hydrogen of mass 3, an ordinary proton, an ordinary hydrogen atom as it were, so we'd broken down the deuterium into hydrogen of mass 3 into - by hitting 2 plus 2 we got 3 plus 1 as it were.
Well, this was a new reaction that took place at extremely low bombarding energies, and produced a new kind of hydrogen that had never been seen before, you see. But in addition to that, we found that there were neutrons being produced and that opposite the neutrons there were appearing the helium atoms, doubly charged particles. These doubly charged particles puzzled us. They had very short range and, because of their low energy coming opposite a particle of mass 1, they only had one-ninth of the energy that was produced in the reaction, so they only went a short distance through the air and were difficult to detect, but we knew that they were doubly charged because of the ionisation they produced. And we puzzled and puzzled as to what these could be, and couldn't think of an answer. Six o'clock came and the lab closed at six, Rutherford was insistent on stopping work at six, and you weren't allowed to work at night because he said the evenings were times when one should be thinking about what had been - one had been doing experimentally, and we dispersed and I went home and thought a bit about this after dinner about this interaction and couldn't make head or tail of it, went to sleep still puzzled, and at three o'clock in the morning the telephone rang, and my wife who woke up because of the baby of course, was awake before I was - even heard the thing, and I was deaf anyway, and in any case I didn't like answering the phone. She got up but she came back to me and she said, 'The Professor wants to speak to you'. We always called Rutherford 'The Professor', and so I went to the telephone and sleepily said, 'Good evening', and he said, 'Do you know Mark, I think I know the answer to that problem of ours'. And I said, 'Well what is it Professor?' and he said 'Those little particles are particles of helium of mass 3; not only have we got hydrogen of mass 3 we've found helium of mass 3'. And I said, 'But Professor how - what on earth reasons have you for that?' I said, 'Nothing on earth can make two plus two', because deuterium was mass two, the target was mass 2 so 'two plus two equals three' and he said, 'Reasons, reasons Oliphant!' he said 'I feel it in my water'. And the next morning I set to work to do the experiment of passing these particles through crossed electric and magnetic fields, to determine their velocity and hence for we knowing there energy one could calculate their mass, and their mass was three. He was absolutely right, and we had in one experiment, we'd discovered two new ...
Yes exactly right. I put the particles through crossed electric and magnetic fields, that measures their velocity, and then from the velocity knowing one can calculate the mass, knowing their energy that they possess from their range in air. So he was quite right.
No not always, he had some very funny ideas at times, but he was so often right, for instance, in 1921 in London, he gave a lecture in which he said that he thought that there must be inside the nucleus of the atom, one of the particles that make up the nucleus must be - have zero electric charge. Must be a very close union of a proton which has a positive charge and an electron which has a negative charge, so close that it apparently has no charge, and he talked about the properties of such a particle, if it existed, that it should be able to pass through matter without making many collisions and so on, and described it in an incredible way. Now he and Chadwick looked for this particle very carefully by every means that they could think of for ten years. But then - eleven years later in 1932, there was a report from Paris that Joliot-Curie, the husband of Madame Curie's daughter, had discovered that particles that were ... that a radiation rather that was produced from bombardment of beryllium metal with alpha particles from radium knocked out protons from a piece of paraffin wax that they were knocked out, and he thought it was due to some peculiar property of this very high energy radiation which apparently was there, but Ruther ... but Chadwick knew at once that this must be neutrons, because they were billiard balls as it were hitting a billiard ball although it had zero electric charge on it, it would knock the proton out. So he set to work to do experiments to prove that this was so. Within a week he had the answer. He'd discovered the neutron, and there it was - Rutherford said that the neutron must exist, in order to explain some of the properties of the nucleus of the atom, and eleven years later, Chadwick discovered the neutron. Although they'd been looking all that time for this elusive particle, which they felt in their water must exist, you see. So it's obvious, you see, that this sort of intuitive approach by Rutherford covered almost everything you see, it ...
Well I'm not a Rutherford, nor a Born or an Einstein but I have had glimmers at times of intuitive approach to things which have worked out.
Your own star was evolving at this time and your reputation, as you were given opportunities, some people who get to assist a great man like Rutherford, some young men, find that their work is not always given due credence, that the great man sometimes takes ...
(interrupting) Oh but that was one point about Rutherford, that he always ... See the paper describing this work is by Oliphant, Marsdorp and Rutherford. His name was last.
(interrupting) He never took any credit for anything that other people had done.
Oh well I was beginning to feel my oats as it were, and beginning to feel that I'd love to have a Cavendish laboratory of my own.
... have a show of my own instead of being a junior in the laboratory. And so I, when an offer came to me to become Professor of Physics in Birmingham, in central England, I went and had a look around and talked to people, and it was rough, and it put Moss the ... the Chairman of the Faculty that was looking for a new Professor on to me, and when I - but when I went and told Rutherford that I was thinking of going to Birmingham, he was terribly angry. He was ... he said, 'Chadwick's gone and let me down, he's gone to Liverpool, now you're leaving me in the lurch and going to Birmingham', and he was very angry with me. Really, really nasty to me. The next day I had a letter from him, saying he was sorry that he'd lost his temper. Wishing me all luck in oh, what I was intending to do, and said he'd love to talk over with me what I'd ... sort of program I had in mind and so on, offering me every assistance. Unfortunately that was the year that he died.
Yes, he died at the very young age really of sixty-seven. Of a messed-up simple operation for a strangulated hernia in the umbilicus.
And what do you think was the main thing that you had learned from him? If you had to try and put into perspective what you'd got out of your time with him, what would you say was the single thing that stood you in good stead for the rest of your life?
Well I got as interested in the nucleus in this internal part of the atom of matter as he was, and I thought I'd like to go on and do this but do this at higher energies. Now in Berkeley in California. the discovery had been made by a great friend of mine, Ernest Lawrence, of a thing that he called the cyclotron. Whereby you accelerated particles in a magnetic field where they performed circular paths and gave them a little flip each time they went past a certain point, so that you increased their energy till they got to the edge, and you could get very high energies in that way. So I went off in 1938 and spent some time in Berkeley with Lawrence, learning how the cyclotron was made and worked, and he was terrifically helpful and became one of my closest friends. I went back to Birmingham, built the largest cyclotron in Europe at that time ... still is one of the largest in Europe, and is still working. That was done in 1937-8. [It was] begun in '37, it was not finished in '38 when we were dragged unfortunately into war work. It was quite apparent that Hitler was on the rage and a lot of us were taken and initiated into the very sec[ret], deadly secrets of radar, because they realised that this sort of thing was going to play a big part in any future, and each of us was then given experience of radar, and then when the war broke out the cyclotron still wasn't finished. I was given the job of trying to produce electromagnetic waves of very much shorter wavelength than were available at that time. At that time the shortest wavelength available was about a metre and a half, and that was produced with a little, tiny little valve called a micro-pup, which didn't give much energy. But it was used in the chain stations, radar stations around the country, where the aerial system, because the wavelength was so long, had to be very big. It was about as big as a tennis court sticking up in the air you see, this great array of dipoles and it was thought that it would be much simpler to do things if one had much shorter wavelengths. And I agreed with this very strongly, particularly for airborne radar which was almost impossible with that wavelength of one and a half metres. So we set to work. I got together - carefully got together a small team of people who were ... had no real experience in radio at all, of radio, and I, I didn't know much about it, except that I'd used amplifiers for my - detecting my particles and for working the cyclotron. But I'd determined to get a group of people who would think fundamentally about it, because having visited the various establishments that were dealing with radio for the services, and the laboratories and works where radio valves and radio receivers and transmitters were developed, I knew that they'd never reach the short wavelengths by the techniques that they were using. That one had to have the resident circuit as we called it, inside the tube itself, it was no good having it outside the generator of the waves. So we set to work to try and devise various devices which would do this, thinking in fundamental terms, rather than just following practice, radio practice. And two of the boys, Boot and ah, and ah ... oh, dear me, old man's memory, and ah ...
... a more senior man whose name I'll remember in a moment, discovered that they could make resonators which were like a revolver with holes in a ring, and slots that pointed towards a cathode inside. The whole thing made out of metal with just a glass to bring the power out, and this worked like magic. This was the magnetron. And of course I'd like to have a dollar for every magnetron that's in the kitchens of the world nowadays, but it proved to be extremely good and reliable. It's frequency stability was improved by a man named Sayers, and within eighteen months or so we'd shot our bolt. We'd got these things flying. We'd got radar working in the air. We'd got it working at pointing searchlights at aircraft at night. We'd got it working on ships. We'd got it detecting ships at sea, and all in eighteen months or two years. And then I thought, I wouldn't ... ah, bugger it all. Ah, this is not a really interesting work, this is work for engineers now. So I went back to 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. One was named Peierls, the other one's name Frisch. Professor Peierls was ... I'd invited to become Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and, rather, Theoretical Physics - and Frisch had come from Copenhagen where he'd been working with Niels Bohr and his aunt. And it was these two people together of course, they were enemy aliens, they weren't allowed to know anything about this secret weapon of 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 [in] which they said that if one could separate the uranium - the rare isotope of uranium which was only present to the extent in normal uranium of less than 1% - if one could separate it and use uranium 235, which was mucked up by the 238 which was mixed with it, if one could separate it then one could make a bomb of enormous power. And they calculated the amount of uranium 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 - they were not in the war at that time of course, and - because we - but we had very close relationship with them on the scientific side, and they had a committee in America that was supposed to be looking at the possibility of getting nuclear energy, since the German, Hahn, had discovered nuclear fission in 1937, in - yes '37. And so everybody was on the - looked - thought here was the possibility of a chain reaction and nobody had found it, but here were Frisch and Peierls, had worked out exactly what to do. And we sent it to America, and then didn't have any reply. So I had to dash across to America in connection with the magnetron, which was being developed in America, American version of it by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. And, but while I was there, I was asked to see what had happened to our report: the Peierls-Frisch 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 Conant 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 is for the next war not for this war. So still dissatisfied I got on an aeroplane, in those days of course there were DC2s, and flew across to - the eighteen hour flight - to Berkeley and to Oakland next door to Berkeley in California, 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. So I told him about this, and he was so upset that he got on a plane with me and we went back to Washington. Then within a few days the Manhattan District [sic] was formed as a result of this, and the the enormous Russian, ah, rather American project well on its way.
That was strange wasn't it? As it all happened as a result of Frisch and Peierls, who were not allowed to be associated with the secret work, setting to work to do calculations about the possibility of chain reactions with uranium.
It may never have happened, but I can't imagine that somebody wouldn't have woken up to the facts of the matter. They had a lot of very experienced people in America. A number of them like Bater and so on who were refugees from Germany, and other people like Robert Oppenheimer who were theoreticians of great experience, and who had worked in Europe, and were not ignorant of our ways.
Because we had information from the Secret Service that the Germans were trying to produce a nuclear weapon, and that the man in charge was a very famous scientist, who [was] a theoretician, but unfortunately they didn't - or fortunately perhaps for us, they, they took the wrong path. They went for the nuclear reactor, whereas ... not the separation of the isotopes of the uranium. And this was remarkable on the part of a man with the intuition of the German scientists of that time, who were very good indeed.
Oh then, after that there were negotiations with the Americans, and finally the Americans relented and we were - we moved to America. Whole of the British team moved to America en masse, because there they had the productive facilities that in Britain were used entirely for making aeroplanes. British industry was all out whereas there was spare industry still in America.
Well, mine was a very minor one, I joined with Chadwick [who] was the leader of our team, and I was his Deputy, so while I was ah officially attached to a group that was run by Lawrence, separating the isotopes of uranium, ah in fact I was ah Chadwick's deputy, and ah I visited ah and took part in all the discussions, and every ah month or so I was - I went to England to report to Sir John Anderson who at that time was Lord President to the Council. The grand name that was given to the man who was ah the Junior Minister but was responsible for all the technical and scientific things. And ah ah then back again to America and flying across the Atlantic in bombers on nine occasions. The reason it wasn't ten was because once I went across in the Queen Mary (laughs) which was fast enough to avoid the submarines.
In the course of your work, leading up to and through the war years, you'd developed this great excited interest in what was happening in the atom and the way in which you might be able to discover more about that. Did it never, during that time, occur to you where it might all be leading?
Ah - I'm not quite sure that I understand what you mean. You see my work in nuclear physics began in the 1930s, long before war broke out, and it wasn't during the war that I developed this interest. It was only the fact that during the war we thought for the first time of the possibility [of] nuclear weapons. And that was the change, a rather horrifying thought, but still one that we had to think about because we knew that the Hitler regime was attempting to develop nuclear weapons, because the fission process made the chain process practicable, and the Germans who from Secret Service information we knew were working hard on the project. So that's the only reason that we took it seriously.
Well perhaps I could go back a step and ask the question slightly differently. During the '30s when you were working on - at the Cavendish and you were excited about what was happening, could you describe what it was that intrigued you, that engaged you?
Well here one was discovering something about the most minute thing that we could think of in the universe. If one takes an ordinary atom, of course you can't see it. There's no way of seeing it - you've got to examine it by indirect method using x-rays and so on, and the sort of light that it emits to give you information about its structure and so on. It's - but that only gives you information about the outside of the atom, the electrons around the atom which produce the light that is emitted when an atom is excited in some way, like in a fluorescent lamp for instance, but we were interested in the inside of the atom. Now Rutherford had discovered that the atom was like a solar system that had a little central sun, or nucleus as we called it, in the year 1911, when he was working in Manchester, and it was the structure of this tiny little thing, so small that it's one over ten with twenty-four noughts after it in centimetres in diameter; so that you can see how incredibly small it is. And the only way in which you could examine it was in indirect method, that's to say by a sort of hitting it and seeing what happened. And the chances of hitting it, because it was so small and minute, so you had to fire tens of millions of bullets as it were at it, in order to make a collision with it. It was described by somebody once in these words that might interest you: supposing you were in a small boat, you were rowing across the sea, and you had nothing but oh, the oars that were in the boat and yourself, and you came across a small island, and this island had around it a high wall, and this high wall was smooth and it was too high for you to look over, and you had no equipment that allowed you to climb it in any way. How could you discover whether the island was inhabited and what sort of inhabitants there were on the island without ever seeing them? The answer, of course, is what you'd do would ... you'd pick up some stones off the seashore, and you'd throw them over the wall. If there are intelligent beings there, sooner or later they'd be provoked into throwing them back again, and from the velocity, the energy with which they came, and you could determine something about the strength of the people who lived on the island, and from the direction in which they came. Supposing they were thrown directly back in the direction that they'd arrived, you'd know that you had reasonably intelligently people on the island, and so you can elaborate this into getting a pretty good picture of the inhabitants on the island without ever having seen them. That's what we do with the nucleus of the atom. We fire visitors as it were into the interior of this atom, which is - takes the - you've got to as I said fire tens of millions of them, in the chance of one sometimes hitting and penetrating inside the nucleus and then look at what happens, what sort of particles come out, what are results of the disintegration, the breakdown of the nucleus, or what used to be called the splitting of the atom.
That's right. It's the only way to - and during these processes of understanding it, it was found that one was creating all the time new sorts of atoms that were unknown on earth. Things like sodium for instance, which is the material in common salt - sodium chloride: sodium is a metal, a soft metal, and it - rather interesting metal, but it is just a normal material, has no oh, just chemical properties, normal properties. It's very ubiquitous, it occurs in the sea you see as the main component of the salts in the sea and so on. But when you hit it with one of these particles, sometimes you knock a bit out of it and the remaining part is radioactive just like radium. So that one can create radioactive species of all the atoms in the universe by hitting them with the right bullets and knocking bits out of them that leave a strange atom that's not a normal constituent of the universe, so it goes back to being a normal constituent by throwing out a bit of itself, until it's the right sort of shape and size to fit.
That's right. That's right to a large extent.
Oh yes, it was this finding new things, and I talked last time about our discovery of hydrogen of mass 3 and helium of mass 3 in that way, and hydrogen is a stable substance, or pretty stable, it lasts for - it's not a permanent constituent of the - but it's got a pretty long life. The helium on ... is perfectly stable, and the hydrogen changes into helium of mass 3 over a period of time. That's a stable sort of species, that we found does occur in nature to a very, very small extent. It can be detected on the sun for instance, from the light that it gives out.
No, no, no. There's no sense of power whatever. This is - this is an ill-conceived idea. One had a feeling that - that one was understanding. That one was coming to have knowledge of how matter was built up, of how the - and then beginning to have ideas about how it all began, how creation took place, and how these atoms, under conditions of very high temperature and pressure, could change into one another. One could build up heavier atoms from the original hydrogen-only atmosphere. It's this concept, this idea that one begins to understand and have some sort of knowledge that it is exciting, not a question of command or of any sort of power that one possessed.
No, no, no. In the year 1916, Rutherford, giving a lecture in London in the middle of the First World War, said that - he pointed out to his audience, rather, that there were big energies associated with this radioactive processes that he was investigating. The properties of re-uranium and its products,and that these had to be measured unlike chemical processes which measured in one or less electron volt of energy we ... that is a unit we use in science for measuring the energies of these particles. These particles that are produced from radium had energies of six to ten million electron volts, and he said in the course of this lecture that some of his colleagues thought that it'd be a good idea to find a way of producing radioactivity of this sort artificially so that one would then have enormous sources of power. And he ended up by saying, 'I hope it never happens in my lifetime or some bloody fool might blow the world to bits'. He was just as aware even then in 1916 of what the energy that was locked up inside the nucleus as - although people have accused him of being not in favour of nuclear power and nuclear energy, the reason he always expressed disquiet about it was that he was fearful of the consequences.
Well I explained that last time I think in some detail, that we knew that the Germans were on to it, that how they - a very famous physicist, Heisenberg was in charge of the work. A man who was fully capable of thinking through the whole process. Heisenberg is the author of the so-called 'uncertainty principal' which is talked about so much, has been written about and so on. So he was an adversary of the first class, and so one couldn't neglect the fact that Hitler might get nuclear weapons, and that was the reason that in Britain we started to do work, and I told the story last time, of the way in which it took place in my laboratory.
I was thinking that one of the first things you were asked to do when war broke out was to go away, and you've told us about how you went away and worked on radar, and then ... But I was wondering from within your own knowledge and your own understanding, when war broke out did you immediately think - before it was brought more directly to your attention - did you immediately think this nuclear capability will play a part in this war, or did it take ...
(interrupting) No it - we did set up a committee of people who were interested in it. A committee that went by various names finally it was called the MAUDE Committee and then the Tube Alloys Committee, in order to disguise what it was thinking about. And it considered all the evidence in favour of the possibility of a chain reaction that would produce a large explosion, and it all seemed at the beginning so distant, until the series of incidents that I remarked upon last time with Peierls and Frisch producing this seminal paper, which woke us up to the fact that it was a real possibility.
Given that you were in a situation where you were unsure of what the outcome would be, and remembering that Rutherford had made this comment about it long ago, did that occur to you then, when you started working and thinking about it that it may be leading beyond where you were all wanting it to go?
Yes, yes, very much so, and very many of the people who were associated with it were very worried about it, including Chadwick whose picture here - I found it this morning ah ... [interruption - "Could we start that again?"]
Yeah, you are sort of asking the same question over again as it were.
Yes. Had I had a chance to tell you what I was going to do today, you might have felt more comfortable with that. The thought was that we would look more thematically at things, and so looking at your attitude to nuclear power, and how it related to the bomb and so on was something I was coming at a slightly different way you know. I was getting into it from a slightly different angle from just the chronological one.
Well nuclear power was an off-shoot of the search for the nuclear weapon, it was quite ... discovered quite separately from the nuclear weapon, and the first reactor was built by Fermi on a tennis court in Chicago in 1942 I think. No.
So if we could go back, I will ask that question again. I was just ... I was going to explain before we started to roll, that today, we may approach some of the things slightly differently and out of their chronological context, to get a more abstract picture of your attitudes ...
(under Robyn) I'll do my best. I'll do my best.
(continuing) ... and the thoughts that were going through your mind. Right, and so therefore although it may be covering the same ground we want it fresh as if you hadn't said it before. So I'll I'll ask that question again. Given that Rutherford had, back in ... many years before, expressed a fear that someone may use this understanding to blow the world up, when you started looking with the MAUDE Committee and so on at the possibility of the use of this as part of weaponry, did that thought occur to you, were you worried about where they'd go?
Oh yes, right from the beginning, one had no doubts whatever of the horror of the situation, that here we had the possibility of mass extinction of people who were the work of man's hands in cities and so on. Whole city being blown to pieces with one bomb instead of with thousands of bombs of a normal kind. It was something that was really quite horrifying, and it was at the back of the minds of most of us who worked on it. Not of all of us. There were some people who just revelled in the purely in the science and in the objective, and didn't worry at all about the ultimate result, and ... but Niels Bohr was the man who really sort of led us in our worries during the war about the ultimate result of, if we were successful in the production of nuclear weapons.
Well you see, the difficulty is that one didn't know. When it became clear that a bomb was almost certainly a practical possibility, when we'd separated the isotopes of uranium and had stocks of plutonium, it was quite clear to us that the thing was going to be successful. One could ... the theory, there was no doubt about it at all in our minds. And at that stage, the fears that we had - what I might call the Bohr group had - became so great that Bohr sought an interview with President Roosevelt, and President Roosevelt was good enough to give him one and a half hours of his time to talk about, it and expressed considerable interest in this point of view, that this bomb, if it could be produced, should be used for peace and not for war. It should be - if it was exploded at all - should be exploded as a demonstration of what could happen to a country by, say, blowing the top off Fujiyama or something, and making it clear that the Japanese - the Germans had been defeated by that time by other means - what would happen if they weren't good boys. So ah ...
Well Roosevelt, asked Bohr for more information and then Bohr wrote a long screed about it, which I helped him to write because his English wasn't all that good, him being a Dane, and his wife said his Danish wasn't much better. So that it was a business in getting, to get a script that would, whilst concise and at the same time would be understood by the President. This interested Roosevelt, still more, and he asked for further information. There were some questions that arose from the first letter that was sent to him by Bohr, that he didn't quite understand and he asked for enlightenment. And Bohr prepared a second script which I also helped him with to some extent. He'd bring me bits of it and read them over to me and I'd criticise the English or the expression and so on, and then he sent that off to Roosevelt. But unfortunately before he read it Roosevelt died, and Truman took over, and Truman had no scruples whatsoever. So just through fate as it were, it looked as though Roosevelt was going to use it as a weapon for - he was interested at any rate in the concept of using it as a weapon for peace, rather than war. But of course, once the test in the desert took place in New Mexico and it was clear that all our fears were justified, it then was no longer the concern of the scientists, it became - it went straight into the hands of the military and the politicians. Scientists had nothing more to do with it.
Yes I went back to England, at that stage when it became obvious that everything was going to work out alright. In order to be able to translate the information that came from America to Sir John Anderson, who was the - as I said was the Lord President of the Council and was responsible for all these technical things under the Churchill Government, and so I was there in order to explain exactly what was happening when the bomb was used.
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 aside, by a so-called Christian nation, not by the Japanese or by infidels of any kind, but by a 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 and saves lives, so at the moment there was that sort of mixture of feelings that one had. But added to that the hope that means would be found to control this weapon so it was never used again.
Your own feelings of doubt about it had, even before the bomb was dropped, aroused a certain amount of interest in you from authorities who were concerned about the quality of dissent that always ran through your work and your attitudes. And you'd already had an incident hadn't you that perhaps began to alert you that others would be interested in your political views in relation to the bomb.
In ah ... (under Robyn) in what way?
No, no, no, I never had any ...
... calls of that sort, but I had a lot of conversations with the FBI people, and also had arguments with them because a great friend of mine who was working on the project - a man named Martin Cayman who sent me a book which is on the table across there - only - I only received it yesterday, he's in Australia at the moment, in the Barossa Valley. And Martin Cayman was a very distinguished chemist, who was also a beautiful viola player, and we had contacts over music, and we had ... we became friends. I used to go and - he had played in a quartet with our friends, who were - one of whom was the first violinist in the San Francisco Orchestra and a Russian. And so ... there were suspicions about Martin Cayman [INTERRUPTION] and Martin Cayman in the end was dismissed from the project, and I protested very strongly against this, and I was in contact with the, particularly with Colonel Nichols who was the man in charge of security on the project, but I never got to first base, I ... I was listened to with - but there was no - no comment of any kind.
After the war was over, and you had this concern about trying to see to it that the nuclear power wasn't used in this, for mass destruction in that way again, what did you do about this? How did you put this into action?
Well I gave a lot of talks up and down Australia - in England and then when I came out to Australia, up and down Australia on the dangers of nuclear war and the necessity for world-wide control of this terrible weapon of mass destruction, which the numbers of which grew and grew, until they were so great that if they were all exploded in an exchange between say United States and Russia would have virtually made this earth a sterile earth because of the radioactivity that was released - spread all over the place, quite apart from the destruction that was caused of life and property and everything else. So I kept up my talk against nuclear weapons, then in 1951 I wanted to go to a conference in Chicago on the production of higher anti-particles for investigation of the nucleus and its properties, high energy physics as we called it, and my American visa I never got. The American Embassy here refused to say that it had been refused. But they always maintained it was late in coming. Hah! That it - of course by the time it came I - it was too late to go to the conference. But I'd kept on my correspondence with the American Ambassador and asked whether he couldn't in all conscience find out for me why I was refused. And he said that - the message I got back again was that through the first - the Deputy to the Consul - to the Ambassador was that - this was during the McCarthy era in the United States when everybody was under suspicion as it were - that I wasn't accused of communist sympathies or communist connections, but what I was accused of was of firing, of providing bullets for the Russians to use in argument against the United States.
Oh, I knew that my relationship with Martin Cayman who'd been dismissed from the project must have made them a bit suspicious of me in some ways, and I knew that they were keeping an eye on me because on one occasion for instance when I visited some work that was going on in the in Canada. When I got to Ottowa, the railway station is down below if you remember and you go up a flight of steps to the foyer of the railway station. I went up the flight of steps, there at the flight - top of the flight of steps there was one of the FBI chaps from the place where my office was in Tennessee.
Obviously waiting for me. (laughs)
I spoke to him, said hello. (laughs)
Oh yes. But I think everybody was under - who'd been associated with the - was working on the project. I was pretty closely supervised, and for instance the FBI had officers on the ground floor of the building, where my office was, and on the first floor my office, and every telephone conversation that was made by anybody in the building was recorded by the FBI down below. Every conversation, so that one had to be very wary in one's - even in talking to relatives or friends on the telephone. But one of the most difficult times was due to an Australian. A man named W. S. Robinson. A very famous Australian who was the Head of South Broken Hill, and the Chairman of the Zinc Corporation - later became Conzinc Rio Tinto and of course ran all the Broken Hill, South Broken Hill activities, and he was adviser to Mr Churchill on the procurement of metals during the war. He helped them to find metals that were difficult to get for production of munitions of various kinds. Well, I picked up the telephone, or at least [the] secretary came and told me I was wanted on the telephone, and I picked it up and a voice said to me, 'Hello Mark', and I said, 'Hello, but who's that speaking?' 'This is W. S. speaking'. He always called himself W. S., W. S. Robinson, and I'd got to know him very well in England , because his main - main office was in in London in, almost opposite the Palace, at ah ahh ... of I've forgotten the name of where ...
Yes. And I said, 'What can I do for you W. S.?' you see. He said, 'Well I - look I want to talk to you about uranium'. Now uranium of course was a secret word which wasn't mentioned in public by anybody, and I was horrified you see and I said, 'Wait a minute W. S. Wait a minute W. S.', and he said, 'It's alright Mark. It's alright Mark. I know all about it. Winston's told me all about it'. I said, 'Well I'm sorry but I really can't answer any questions at all'. But it was a delicate moment I can assure you.'
When you went back to England after the war, were you conscious in settling yourself back into the English scene of any kind of particular scrutiny or concern that was going on there about your political attitudes.
No, no, no, no, I don't think there was anything of that kind at all. They ah ...
Oh yeah, for a while but then it became secret and I didn't want to be involved in any secret work, apart from the fact that, you know, obviously people were a bit suspicious of me in some ways, that I might, because of my antagonism to the nuclear weapons, I might be indiscreet.
That's hard to understand - or to express, even to understand for oneself. That there was this sort of feeling of sort of gratitude that the war was over, because one knew so well how the sort of work I was doing, flying over Germany for instance in bombers to see how the radar worked where - how well it worked in picking up the site of a city or a bridge over a - and flying through the flack and so on. It was interesting to see these little puff balls appearing in the air there from the anti-aircraft guns and that sort of general hope that one of them wasn't too close to you, because anti-aircraft fire was very bad at that time, very ... a lot of guess work in it and so on. So that one wasn't too afraid, but one did see the destruction which had been wrought in these German cities, and that was terrible to look down on and also to look down on the terrible things that they'd done in other places. To be in London when a V2 came over was really a rather terrifying experience, if one was in the open and walking around, so that one had finished the war with a great sort of feeling that if ... almost of puzzlement as to why mankind had done this to one another. Why people had deliberately destroyed not only the lives of men, women and children indiscriminately, by the bombing of cities and so on, but had destroyed the works of their hands. Some of them the most beautiful buildings in the world, and this seemed such a wrong thing, for man to be deliberately doing, and it was these sort of general thoughts that went through one's mind, more than any sort of feeling of close association with it. It was a feeling of somehow or other all of this had to be stopped, and one had of course great hopes that the United Nations idea would produce something that ... by the way, I'd like to say something about my involvement with the United Nations with Dr Evatt, in 1946.
Yes. But not - not overly so. It was a curious sort of feeling of guilt. I imagine the same sort of feeling as the soldiers had who'd - or the airmen had who'd dropped the bombs, it was a - a sort of feeling of action at a distance. In other words you weren't - you didn't personally kill the man, it was killed in the name - he was killed in an indirect way, certainly through you machinations, but not directly, and this did change, to some extent, one's attitude towards it all.
So your subsequent involvement in the efforts to bring the world together and to stop this kind of thing happening again, was based on a more general concern about war, rather than an expiation of any sort of personal guilt that you felt about your involvement.
Oh yes very much so.
And it was - because you know, I hadn't mentioned this before but all my life I've been very much concerned for this phenomenon that's in the solar system confined to this earth, this phenomenon of life, of evolution, of the man as the pinnacle of evolution, and hence the responsibilities of man towards the whole of the earth. And ever since I could make decisions for myself, I've been for instance a vegetarian as a result, because I have, do not want to kill things in order to remain alive, and I think it's totally unnecessary and after all I'm near - over ninety now, so I think I've proven my point.
Yes well that's right. My feeling for humanity was before the war. I've already mentioned earlier that I was at one time, you know, contemplating being a clergyman and so on. It, it was family influence to some extent but mostly I think that because my brothers - two of my brothers served in the airforce, the Australian airforce and ...
That's right, and coming to terms with it was not all that easy, but ...
I - it was the sort of hatred I think of ah the Hitler regime that really drove me. See I had had working with me in 1933 the exodus of the Jews from Germany it became a real river and in Cambridge we had to receive a large number of German scientists, some of whom worked with me, and I got to know them intimately and their reactions to the regime in Germany and so on. People like those I've already mentioned, Peierls and Frisch for instance, and another man named Harteck who worked closely with me, and who was not a Jew. And hence, but he'd left Germany before - because he didn't like the regime, not because he was driven out. So it was a mixture of people and I learnt a lot from these people and their reactions to the treatment that they'd received, and ...
Well I don't know, you've go to develop a double personality you know, and think one way one moment, and then another way the next. Ah, you never do reconcile the two.
It's like, it's like suddenly being angry with somebody, angry with one's wife and then the next moment one's contrite and unhappy about it all. It's a - it's a sort of a dual personality that I think is in every person. And I found the same with my women colleagues also, in Cambridge that ... people like Miss Marsdorp who came from Rhodesia and had a totally different point of view towards black Africans from mine, you see. That taught me a very great deal, about human relationships. And then I had a Pakistani student who worked, researched with me very closely, from whom I learnt a lot about their beliefs - he was a Mohammedan of course - and what motivated them and his reasons for being nevertheless interested in science and physics and wanting to do well.
Well I joined various organisations, got into trouble over some of them. One of them was the World Federation of Scientific Workers oh, I think it was called, which organised - which I wasn't a member of - but it organised ten years after his death, it was in 1947, a meeting at the Sorbonne in Paris, on Rutherford, to commemorate Rutherford ten years after he'd died. And I was asked to speak having been very close to Rutherford, and worked with him. And I attended this meeting, but it turned out afterwards that this meeting was, as the security people said, permeated by Soviet people, people who were in sympathy with the Russian regime, and this of course kept coming up that I'd attended this meeting organised by the ... So was I a member of it you see and I wasn't, I merely went because it was commemorating Rutherford, whom I loved.
Well the the Pugwash Movement as I've already ...
I did, I told you about.
... Mr Eaton and about the way he ...
Ah wasn't it? Oh I see ah.
Yes. When the Americans let off their first hydrogen weapon, it so horrified Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, that he together with Einstein, wrote a manifesto, it was known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which they both signed, and it was an appeal to the scientists of the world to get together and eliminate from the world this terrible menace of nuclear weapons. And Russell whom I knew personally, whom I'd done broadcasts with - I naturally fell in with this proposal, and a gathering was called in London of scientists who had these sorts of sympathies, which was a preliminary meeting of people with those ideas, and an arrangement was made through the interest of an American multimillionaire who'd been Canadian born. He'd been born at a little fishing village called Pugwash in Nova Scotia on the banks of the, of the mouth of the St Lawrence River. And he invited this group to meet at Pugwash where he had transformed the old family home into a sort of place for seminars and so on of a serious nature, and he provided the wherewithal for these to be held. And Pugwash was already well known for meetings of a serious kind, to consider the human condition and so on. So I went along as one of the members of about thirty people at the first Pugwash conference in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. We were flown from the whatever aircraf... airport we arrived by Mr Eaton in his own private aeroplane, and it was a gathering of people from all over the world including, and this was very important - including four Russians. Now the whole concept behind these Pugwash meetings was that they were to be private meetings. There was no - no ...
Newspapers or press or media people present, so that everybody could let their hair down and say what they liked without being reported in the press as saying things that were not good in the eyes of the ... This enabled the Russians to come, in the knowledge that they would not be reported, and it was an incredibly helpful discussion. The leader of the Russians was the Physical Secretary of the Russian USSR Academy of Science and so a very influential man. They brought plenty of vodka with them, so that it was an occasion of enjoyment in more ways than one. But we got down to work and it turned out to be very successful. Now through - there had been many meetings of the Pugwash Group held elsewhere in all sorts of parts of the world; in Poland, in East Europe, in countries that no longer exist, many of them, and in London and Cambridge, and Moscow and so on - and also abroad in India, and in Japan.
Well the one thing I think that we were really very successful in, was we had a very full discussion about the cessation of test explosions in the air which were spreading radioactivity everywhere. And we did discuss scientifically what would happen if you made these explosions underground, sufficiently underground, and then advocated very strongly that they be put underground, and report it to every nation in the world, that was concerned at all with nuclear things, that tests in the future should be carried out underground. All nations respected that except the French.
Yes, I was a member of the United Nations Association and have continued to take an interest in it, although I'm afraid I'm rather disabused about the United Nations as a body that's capable of controlling the passions of mankind in the world; their - the reasons for going to war and so on. The Security Council has proved a bit of a washout. Now I was involved with the first meetings of the Security Council and the Atomic Energy Commission that was established by the United Nations as one of its first activities. Now you remember that because of the alphabetical order of Chairman of the, of these bodies, Australia provided the first Chairman for the first meetings. It was Dr Evatt, and I was asked by the Prime Minister at the time whether I would go as Dr Evatt 's expert on nuclear matters and military matters in general. Which I did and I flew from England with Dr Evatt, who was dead scared of flying, and his wife, across the Atlantic in an - one of the very early Constellations. And that was quite an amusing experience but I don't think it's relevant to what we are talking about now. He was very frightened of flying but he did fly. He had the guts to fly. But as Chairman of the meeting which in those days had no simultaneous translation, it was a terrible business, you'd hear a speech in English, the first speech was given by the American, head of the American Delegation, and gave the American point of view about the future of nuclear power in the world, nuclear energy in the world, and that was followed by its being translated into French, and then into German and so on. One had to sit for hours while these translations took place, and then the next one would come on and the next speaker was Mr Gromyko from Russia, and Mr Gromyko put the proposal - his proposals were very simple, he said, 'Russia demands as number one priority that all existing nuclear weapons should be dismantled'. They didn't use the word 'destroyed' because they realised that the radioactive materials, the explosive materials that we used were also the materials for use in nuclear reactors, for making nuclear power stations. And that no nuclear weapons in future should be allowed to be made, that there should be a universal inspection of every country and its industries, under the United Nations to verify that no nuclear weapons were being produced, and that was really the essence of what his proposals were. It produced an immediate reaction in Robert Oppenheimer, who was the Adviser to the American Delegation on nuclear matters of course, having been the father of the nuclear weapon. And he rushed around to me as the Adviser to the Chairman of the meeting, said, 'For heaven's sake get your boss to say something in favour of the Russian proposals because that is wonderful', he said, 'I think that we should consider them very seriously, and I'll tell my boss, that that is what I feel', but he ... I said ... 'You get your boss to to do that', he said. 'Matter of interest', he said, 'I'll give you a bit of classified information', he said, 'At the present time there are only three nuclear weapons in existence', and he said, 'It would be half an hour's work to take them apart - dismantle them', and he said, 'If the whole proposal failed, it'd take us another half hour to put them together again. So', he said, 'We've got nothing to lose by considering very seriously the Russian proposal'. Well as soon as I got a moment I went down to the Chairman who was sitting in the middle of the circular audience of representatives of nations and said to Doc Evatt, 'I've been talking to Robert Oppenheimer and he and I both believe that the Russian proposal should be considered very seriously. Will you please make a statement to that effect, that we should discuss them in detail', and Evatt turned around to me and irritably said 'No, no, no, nothing of the sort, we might want to use them against them'. That was the response I got. So we never got anywhere.
Yeah that's right.
But you see Mr Bernard Baruch who was a - an oil millionaire who was the leader of the American Delegation - a very tall old man, gracious, a nice old man, I liked him. Well he seemed old to me at that time, I suppose he was in his late sixties, but I would, of course, sort of errand boy between Doc Evatt and his office, and the office of Mr Bernard Baruch and I - several times I had to go across and for the ... on the part of the Chairman, discuss the next day's business with Mr Baruch. And I liked Mr Baruch I found him an approachable man, but he was quite inflexible over the - he refused to have anything whatever to do with the Russian proposal.
No. So it was - that was that. But one of the things that, for instance, impressed ... I was very interested in Dr Evatt because he was a strange man, and his wife was his mainstay you know. She really took care of him wonderfully well, both on an aeroplane during his periods of excitement and terror and on the ground. But he was a terrific believer in the importance of Australia which of course was miniscule compared to that of the United States, and European countries and so on. But when we got to New York, for instance, Mr ... I've forgotten the name for the moment, a man who had been Foreign Minister and was the first Australian representative on the United Nations, had been instructed to have a car, a special car for Dr Evatt's use while he was in Washington, and it was a Cadillac. When we got there it was a Cadillac, but it was a small Cadillac, and Doc Evatt blew the top off his head in complaint about the fact that this was undignified for him to be riding around in something of this sort, whereas the Representative of Uganda or somewhere was driving around in a great big limousine.
I think a little of both. I think he was, he was genuinely very concerned for Australia's reputation and standing in the world, and very much aware of the, of the importance of his being Chairman of the first meetings of the Security Council and the Atomic Energy Commission, of the United Nations.
Yes I, I suppose it must have called attention to Australia, he was an easily flattered man. Mr Bernard Baruch took him to a ringside seat at some prize fight for the prize fighter of the world, a man named Joe Louis I think was one of the fighters, but I've forgotten who the other one was, and they had ringside seats, and he was - this thrilled him you know, he was really sort of, felt that this was a great honour to be a taken to a ringside seat at a prize fight.
Not, not boxing. I'm very glad that the, that the whole of the medical fraternity is now trying to get it banned - boxing - banned completely as a sport.
Yes when I first came to Australia I felt that - interested in nuclear energy as a source of energy and that Australia should be involved particularly as we had deposits of uranium. But because a nuclear reactor naturally inside itself produces plutonium which can be used to make nuclear weapons, I very soon changed my point of view. Ever since then I've been against nuclear power altogether because any country with a nuclear power station, potentially has nuclear weapons. And this is - I don't want to see it proliferated all over the world. Fancy what would have happened if, in the Middle East recently. if there'd been nuclear weapons available in a fracas of that kind. It would have been terrible.
Now we left you at the beginning of the war, with the outbreak of war and your secondment to the war effort, at Birmingham University, with wanting to develop a cyclotron so that you could explore that route. Could you pick up the story there, because when you came to Australia, that was also part of your agenda wasn't it?
Yes, yes. I thought that I would like to see Australia in the nuclear field, and I - we bought a unit from Holland from Philips - high voltage unit which was a beginning, and I got a man who'd been my first research student in Birmingham named Titterton, Ernest Titterton, to come out as a Head of a Department of Nuclear Physics, which he remained until his unfortunate accident and then death. So nuclear physics became part of our job, but at the same time I wanted to also to be in the higher energy type of physics, and the making of new particles that didn't exist naturally on earth, which had been developed in America, first of all in Berkeley in California and then where they produced particles bombarding particles with an energy of eight thousand million volts ... electron volts, which was ten times as great as had been obtained anywhere else before. And that was done by my friend Ernest Lawrence, and his team including Ed MacMillan and others who were great friends of mine. And I thought we ought to have something of that sort in Australia, but I didn't really realise the difficulties in Australia of getting things done in the field of engineering and in the end we had to abandon the effort, it was ... became impracticable, just because of the difficulty of getting things done. But my interest in that field, has remained ever since, and the international group at Lucerne in Switzerland, where the whole of the, practically the whole of the European countries got together including Britain to build big machines which produced even greater energies, in now - even up to trillions of electron volts which have produced some amazing results, new particles that we were unconscious of the existence of. Some of which had been predicted by theoreticians as essential. Others which came out of the blue, and so I've kept up an interest in that field, but purely by reading and writing, not by actual experimental work myself.
But here's another one of those paradoxes that you're confronted with, that on the one hand there is this curiosity to find out more, to understand all. Yet as it goes along, your conscious of the potential for harm in it. What are your thoughts about that?
Well I don't think that in this high energy physics field there is any potential for harm. The potential for harm still lies with the nuclear weapons and the possibility of their use, and with the fact that if you have a nuclear reactor you can make nuclear weapons if you so want to. Those are the dangers that the world faces at the moment, and it's the control of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons that we've got to focus on for the safety of mankind. These super colliders, these super instruments that have been built in America and at Lucerne in ... cooperatively by the European Nations, are instruments that tell us more about the nature of the origin of the universe - the nature of matter as it was born. And this is a very interesting subject and of course led in the end to this concept of the 'big bang' as it's called, as the initial state of the universe, but whether or no that's the correct point of view, is still a moot question. It's the best answer we've got at present.
[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.
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.
Oh I'm quite sure they can be solved, I'm quite sure they can be.
... 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.
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.
I've done a number of experiments myself and still doing odd experiments, getting ideas and trying things out ...
That's right yes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
Sir Mark, you're always on lists of Great Australians. Australia has claimed you as one of its great sons, and yet your relationship with Australia has had a couple of strands to it. You were really inspired and excited by the intellectual life of Cambridge, and when you were approached to come back to Australia, how far did a feeling of connection with Australia - how much did that play a part in making you decide that you wanted to come back?
I felt that I owed Australia something. I felt that I owed my own country something. My mother and father were still alive at that time, and my brothers, four brothers that I had and they had families, and I felt that, that it would be nice, apart from feeling the Australian atmosphere and experiencing once again places where I grew up, that it would be nice to be with brothers whom I hadn't seen for twenty years or more, and talk about things, and so on. It was, it was - I think that was the only thing that was positive in my mind.
Coming home, and a sort of debt that I owed to Australia I felt for my education, for my - everything up till where I went to Cambridge and so on.
Yes, 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, for an outback place like Canberra, that it absorbed the whole of my time for twenty years.
Oh this is true, this is true, there's some satisfaction in that.
I think so yes, but it was mainly the fact that I was born in South Australia, and here I was in Canberra, and here was a chance perhaps to do something in South Australia, for South Australia. I warned Mr Dunstan when he asked me whether I would - he could put my name forward to the Queen as Governor, that I wasn't prepared to be 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 had been in Canberra.
Yes. Yeah and indeed seemed to want me to do that.
Yes I'm afraid he did.
Well I'd rather not go into it because personalities were involved and ...
I found myself utterly opposed to some of his views on social questions, not on - I admired him enormously, he was a great orator, he - to hear him you know, do a bit of Shakespeare was really a you know a delight, and he did that sort of thing so perfectly he had a great appreciation of the arts, and of course it was during that time that the Festival Theatre was opened in Adelaide, and of course I played a part in that, which gave me great satisfaction. In that sense I have a great regard for him, he built up art and appreciation of music and of drama in Australia - in South Australia - in a way that'd never been done before, but he had views about life in general with which I was not in sympathy.
Well I don't want this to appear on the - in the thing but the main position was that well when I really parted company with him was when he admitted on television that he was a homosexual. I thought that was a pretty bad thing for a Governor - for a Premier to do. I didn't think that it mattered from you know the general point of view, but to be a sort of advocate of aberrant behaviour seemed to me to be ... I was old-fashioned I suppose. And I didn't appreciate it.
I enjoyed the first two or three years. One met so many people and one had, of course, to put up the Royal family when they visited Australia and other famous people who came along. [INTERRUPTION]
For the first two or three years it was fun, meeting all sorts of people. Of course Government House is a sort of hotel, Government Hotel, and so that one had to put up distinguished visitors - not only Australian, but the Royal family and so on. And this was quite good fun, and one got to know them very well, and to ... in a different sort of way from otherwise. But also it was - it enabled me to get about the place. You see I could go wherever I wanted to, explore at every corner of the State, and even into places like Western Australia and Queensland, I was able to go because of the connections between the States.
Well I liked them all very much indeed - with one exception I won't mention that ...
Very impressed indeed. I thought that Prince Phillip in particular was a great favourite of both my wife and myself. He was always a welcome visitor and we had him three or four times to stay with us.
No, you're not. No, you're not; I can see no advantage in having an elected President because it'd be all this party politics involved, and the same sort of thing as one has with electing the Federal Parliament, and choosing the Prime Minister. It's - it's better to have it I think, something where the person has a duty to do, which is defined, and carries it out and is not mixed up with politics ... or political decisions.
I think I am yes. I think I am. In some ways I'm an Australian and rather resent the intrusion as it were of anything else. But on the whole I feel that we gain more from the connection than we lose, and in particular we avoid the terrible business of having a President like the United States. Of having one man with that sort of power, with that sort of political influence, both nationally and internationally. I think it would be very bad for Australia.
What's been suggested, of course, is a model where you would have somebody operating rather like the governor-general does now, and not being a political President. Would you feel more comfortable with that sort of model, or would you feel that the loss of connection with old Britain was a was a negative?
(interrupting) I don't think it would have much meaning under those circumstances. I mean what would be the job of the governor-general, why have him?
Yes but what would - what's the point? No at least in the name of the Queen you do things, you sign laws and they're not laws until you've signed them. In the name of the Queen you do oh, various other things, and you can always, if you felt like it, do a John Kerr you see, but it's ...
No. No no no I ... despite the fact that I didn't get on too well, and in the later part of time with Don Dunstan, I respected him too much to ...
Because I felt that the work we'd been doing for which it was offered, the war work, was the work of a team and not of me, and to honour me without honouring the rest of the team, was oh, was wrong.
Well Mr Menzies got me into a corner, actually at a party at the National University in University House, and persuaded me that I should accept, that it was my duty to accept.
That's right. Oh, well I admired Mr Menzies very greatly and I - he 'cause he was a great admirer of the British system, Westminster System, and I think rightly so. And so in the end, after I'd talked to my wife - I told him I'd have to talk to my wife first - she was a bit reluctant but agreed in the end.
I didn't like?
Yes. One of the first things I discovered was that every lease on a piece of Crown Land in the State, had to be signed by the Governor, and that this lease had already been signed by nine people, you know, the Ministers and the various officials in the Department that were involved in the land transaction, and I felt that to - there were hundreds of them every week you see - I felt this was just wasted time. I asked first of all whether I could use a rubber stamp, but I wasn't allowed to do that. Then I pointed out to the Government that this is already being signed by ten people who knew what they were doing, and for me to sign it and know nothing about the place, or the conditions of the place or anything else was just being a rubber stamp, so it might as well be a rubber stamp, I said.
Oh yes, I was let off in the end, they decided it - the Attorney General decided that it wasn't really essential under law for me to sign it.
Yes and it was a - you had this great box of leases came in a red box you know, like they send around documents in government circles.
She enjoyed some aspects of it and she was - I must say was a wonderful wife to me as Governor. She did what was expected of her, and she didn't always enjoy it, but she was a marvellous hostess and knew how to seat people at dinner for instance, which I didn't understand at all, who should be next to whom and so on. And she also was a very gracious person, so that it really worked out from her point of view, and mine not too badly, but I think she was as glad as I was when we left and it was over, the formalities were over.
Yes in the end, bothered me very much. And some of it seemed rather ridiculous like for instance, standing absolutely still for one and a half hours while the the ANZAC Day Parade went past.
No I felt that I was - I was a puppet after a time, and I was that's all, I was. In the morning at breakfast time, beside my place - we had breakfast always in our own room upstairs - there was a a foolscap piece of paper headed 'Orders of the Day', which told me exactly what I was doing, and that at 10:10 you see, the Rolls would be at the front door, and I would be going to such and such a place to do this - give a speech or to open a building or something of that sort. And that sort of formality got me down a bit.
No, and nor was I used to being on time. I like to turn up at things you know, when I felt I wanted to.
Yeah that's right yes.
Your wife, you said, supported you well through all of that even though she wasn't all that keen on it. Did you feel that about her all through you life? At times she really did have quite a difficult job to do. When you were off doing war work was when she was raising young children.
Oh she did, she did. She had, she - well, we were married for 63 years and I can say with my hand on my heart that there was never any problem between us at all in the whole of that time that - mainly because she was such a wonderful mother and wonderful wife.
Oh yes, oh yes, and I wrote a very great deal. I wrote letters and she wrote back and sent me snapshots of the children when I was living in America and things of that sort, that sort of kept things rolling and ...
Oh I don't think I did you see, because I'd been brought up in a family where the mother was a very important person indeed and indeed for us the children were (sic) much more important than our father, so that I had no feelings of that sort at all.
No, unfortunately: we had a baby of our own, a boy, who at the age of two and a half died of meningitis while I was away in Europe. John Cockroft, one of my great friends got them to broadcast, in several of the stations in Europe, a message for me, and of course it was all just ... there was no television or anything then, saying that would I please return home at once. And a waiter who heard this message came and spoke to me in Cologne I think it was, and I immediately went and found an aircraft flying and went back, but by that time the little boy was dead. My wife had to go through that on her own. But it was very quick, he was alright the previous day, and alright when he was put to bed, and then it developed during the night.
Well it was very tragic for me, but it was of course most tragic for my wife. I was so upset that I hadn't been there to help her at that time, and it was ... I don't know, when one cares for somebody one shares - we always shared so that ...
No, unfortunately, it didn't work. Ah, as a matter of fact the first one was born, you see, four or five years after we were married, and there was [sic] no children after that, and then we decided to adopt. We adopted first of all a boy, Michael, was a great success, and then I thought that it was wrong to have an only child so we adopted Vivienne our girl. They both turned out wonderfully. Unfortunately Michael's no longer with us but Vivienne is a great tower of strength.
Oh it was a terrible blow because once again Michael died, I was in Canberra, he was in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne in his last days and he died there in the night when I was in Canberra.
As a public man with major obligations all through your life, you always had a public or a job or a war that you had to do your duty by. Did you feel ever that you neglected you personal life, or your ...
Yes, but one had to, you see this is - I'm afraid that's part of life. That in scientific work, experimental work you can't abandon an experiment right in the middle just when it's showing promise of success particularly, or when there's something exciting turning up, and you have to work long hours, and you have to be very dedicated in order to do such work and be a success. It's rather like being a musician really, and you just so rapidly get stale if you're away from it for any time. So that of necessity it does mean a full-time job. One has vacations of course, and we took advantage of those, particularly with the children when they were young. Spent a lot of time exploring England and the Continent with them, and this sort of thing that would happen whilst I was invited to give a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and I decided that we'd all go to Paris. So when I told the children that we were going to Paris, Vivienne burst out crying, and oh, she was inconsolable, and I couldn't get out of her for a time, I said, (telephone rings) 'What's the matter?' She said, 'There mightn't be a loo on board'. [INTERRUPTION]
Looking back over your long life, ninety years of life, you've done so many things, you've been a world-class creative scientist, you've participated in work that changed the course of the Second World War, you've achieved so much and then you came to Australia and you were one of the founding fathers of a whole new effort in high level scientific research in the country, and you've been the Queen's representative. It's an amazing history of achievement. Is there any one thing that you would like to be remembered for out of all of that, that you feel stands out for you?
I don't think so, I - I'd like to be remembered just as a good Aussie bloke. I ... I can't ... I mean if you were to ask me a slightly different question, what part of my life have I enjoyed most, or something of that sort or what part of my life was most creative, then I'd have to say the Cambridge period. That was, I think that was the happiest time of my life.
Oh, because of the whole spirit of the place and of course of the attitude of Rutherford and his friendship, and the fact that one was discovering, every day, new things about nature. And when I came out here I found myself, for such a long time, just an administrator which I'm not good at and I don't like, I don't do well but it had to be done, and I hated it.
Well no, I could have changed my mind I suppose, and I was tempted to by Florey particularly but I did give my word that I would come out to Nugget Coombs, and so I - I thought I ought to ... stick by it.
No I - I knew that beforehand and I was ah ...
As ah ...
... as Rutherford's offsider I had a lot of administrative duties, but they were mixed up with creative work you see, it wasn't continuously administrative, and it was the sort of administration I quite enjoyed as administration for scientific research, not buildings and grounds and council meetings and discussions with Premiers and Ministers and so on.
Oh yes ...
... Oh yes. Oh yes.
Well - I set out to try and bring Australia into the the age of modern physics, and I ... and that meant of course trying to do experiments that were of the kind that were going on in Europe and America. But it turned out to be too difficult a task, we didn't have in Australia the engineering companies to make the sort of equipment that was really required. I had to abandon that. But I stuck to my old last which I'd done in - begun in Adelaide before I went to Cambridge, which I continued in Cambridge for a time, before I joined Rutherford in nuclear physics, and which was the effects of the collisions between positive ions, positively charged atoms and a metal surface, and the phenomenon that took place, the particles, of course, some of them penetrate and are lost, some of them bounce off and you can measure the angles and the energies with which they come off, and some of them cause phenomena, come off with in excited states for instance so that they emit light, emit radiation, and it was all you know, all very exciting - still is. Ah it still is a - a very interesting line of a work.
Oh and yeah well at first it - the administration really took almost all my time, and I - but I did have a research student who worked with me on it when I got back from Adelaide, and that was a great help, I ... see I'd by that time I was retired as Director of the School, and I just had my own room, and I had my own secretary and research assistant, we got on very well, with the work.
And yeah and lack of funds and lack of ah - of the necessary engineering and ...
and other facilities in Australia.
Well it became apparent slowly, so that in the end when I decided that it wasn't worthwhile trying to do this in Australia, it wasn't as great a disappointment as it might have been if it had been cut off suddenly. But I slowly became aware of the fact that we weren't getting very far.
That's right yes. Yes.
Yes a very nasty ...
... accident that led to the blinding of a man who - it was - we were using an alloy of sodium and potassium - they're both alkaline metals, very caustic metals - which when they react violently with water producing caustic soda and and caustic potash. And so that there's an almost an explosive reaction between them and water, and [the] young man who was a research assistant was cleaning up after some of this stuff had been spilt, and it was - the waste was put into a drum, and people were supposed to be very careful you see about this, about emptying the container that they had in their hand into the drum, and avoiding ever being with their head over the drum, but this chap looked over the edge of the drum to see how much stuff there was in it, and whether a tear out of his eye went or something onto the material I don't know, but there was an explosion and he lost the sight of his eye and was terribly disfigured in the face.
Oh dreadful of course. It's a terrible thing for that to happen.
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 yes, but they're they're not - what I did with microwaves was to prove that they were not dangerous, not lethal.
I - sitting as I said before with my head in the beam of microwaves until perspiration was running down my face.
Heat you up like the microwave oven does.
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.
Oh yes. Well they were American pilots and they were - they were good yes.
Oh yes they were all sober, all the pilots, but the ...
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don't know, I think if I was starting out today, I think I'd either be an astronomer or a biophysicist.
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.
Yes. Yes. That's right.
Yes. That's right.
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 ...
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 ...
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.
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 ...
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 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.
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 ...
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.
That's right. That's right the big mystery is this phenomenon of life.
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.
No. My care. My love for the whole of 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.
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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 we were never able to finish the experiment.