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Video Clip Synopsis:
The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sir Mark Oliphant helped to create the bomb, but even though it ended the war he can never reconcile himself to the loss of civilian life.

1min 35sec

Sir Marcus Oliphant and The Atomic Bomb consists of excerpts from the program Sir Marcus Oliphant (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 1 (7 x 26 mins), produced in 1991.

Sir Marcus Oliphant: Sir Marcus Oliphant is a founding father of the Australian National University in Canberra and a former Governor of South Australia. While at Adelaide University in 1927, he was accepted by Cambridge University, where he became part of a team whose task was to split the atom. During World War Two, he developed the centimetre wave radar. 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.

Australian Biography Series 1: The Australian Biography series profiles some of the most extraordinary Australians of our time. Many have had a major impact on the nation’s cultural, political and social life. All are remarkable and inspiring people who have reached a stage in their lives where they can look back and reflect. Through revealing in-depth interviews, they share their stories - of beginnings and challenges, landmarks and turning points. In so doing, they provide us with an invaluable archival record and a unique perspective on the roads we, as a country, have travelled.

Australian Biography Series 1 is a Film Australia National Interest Program.

Study Module

Curriculum Focus: English
Year: 11-12
Theme: Science Work

Key Concepts

Science; Conflict and compromise; Nuclear weapons

Curriculum Applicability Notes

ACT:English course framework (11-12) — responding critically and analytically to texts
NSW:English Stage 6: Close study of text, Texts and society
NT:English Stage 1 Texts and contexts
Qld:English senior syllabus: Texts in their contexts; textual features; Constructedness of texts
SA:English Stage 1 Texts and contexts
Tas:Senior Secondary English: Ideas and issues strand; Texts and contexts strand; Applications strand
Vic:English Language: Unit 3 — Language in society; Unit 4 — Language in use
WA:English Year 11 — Print texts (non fiction), Non-print texts
English Year 12 — Print texts (non-fiction), Non-print texts

Context / Background Information

Sir Marcus Oliphant was born in 1901 near Adelaide, South Australia.

He studied physics and researched under the famous nuclear physicist, Sir Ernest Rutherford, in England.

Following the onset of the Second World War, Oliphant's research focus changed to support the war effort. Initially, he was in charge of a team that successfully developed microwave radar. Then, in November 1943, Oliphant moved to the USA to work on the Manhattan Project — the development of the first atomic bomb. Nazi Germany was at the point of developing its own atom bomb and so the race was on. Initially, the bomb was developed for use against Nazi Germany; but after their surrender before the bomb was ready, it was used to force the Japanese to surrender. Two bombs were dropped in August 1945 with devastating results — one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki. They remain the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare.

Despite being part of the team that developed the atom bomb, after the war Oliphant returned to Australia, where he publicly opposed the development of atomic weapons as a misuse of atomic power. "'I suddenly realised that anybody who has a nuclear reactor can extract the plutonium from the reactor and make nuclear weapons, so that a country which has a nuclear reactor can, at any moment that it wants to, become a nuclear weapons power. And I, right from the beginning, have been terribly worried by the existence of nuclear weapons and very much against their use."

On his return to Australia Oliphant became the first Director of the Australian National University's Research School of Physical Sciences. After retiring from the ANU in 1967, Oliphant became the State Governor of South Australia in 1971.

Sir Marcus Oliphant retired to Canberra in 1976 and died in 2000.

Discussion Pointers

  1. What does the video clip show?
  2. Sir Marcus Oliphant is associated with possibly the most significant event of the 20th century. What is his attitude to it?
  3. What is the issue that he cannot reconcile?
  4. What are your impressions of this scientist?

Suggested Classroom Activities

  1. Many scientific developments in our society are causing great concern — such as cloning, plant gene technology, ‘suicide’ machines, and more. Many people believe these are developing beyond our control. Is science too important to be left to the scientists? Research the way that scientists operate (for example, under the control of ethics committees), and prepare a case for or against this question. Write a letter to the editor outlining your ideas.

Modules That Use This Clip

Science Year 11-12, SOSE/HSIE Year 9-10, English Year 11-12