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Australian Biography - Sir Marcus Oliphant

From the website Australians At Work.
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.
Year of production - 1991
Duration - 1min 35sec
Tags - nuclear weapons, science, war, World War 2, see all tags


Australian Biography - Sir Marcus Oliphant

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About the Video Clip


Sir Marcus Oliphant is an excerpt from the program Sir Marcus Oliphant (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 1 (7 × 26 mins), produced in 1991.

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.

Curriculum Focus


Historical Knowledge and understanding
At Level 6, students analyse events which contributed to Australia’s social, political and cultural development. These events could include: World War II. Students analyse the impact of some key wars in the twentieth century. They explain their influence on people’s lives, national events and international relations. They analyse changes in technology, medicine and communication.

Historical reasoning and interpretation
At Level 6 students locate relevant resources, including online resources. They identify, comprehend and evaluate a range of primary and secondary sources. They critically evaluate sources of evidence for context, information, reliability, completeness, objectivity and bias.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information

While at Adelaide University in 1927, Sir Marcus Oliphant was accepted by Cambridge University, where he became part of a team whose task was to split the atom. Following the onset of World War 2, 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.

After the war he 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.

Classroom Activities

  1. The video clip:
    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? What is the issue that he cannot reconcile?
    3. What are your impressions of this scientist?
  2. In 2006 the Australian Government began to investigate the possibilities of establishing nuclear power plants in Australia.
    1. What are the arguments for and against the use ofthis type of power?
    2. Imagine that a nuclear power plant was planned to built in your local community. Write a letter to the local newspaper explaining your point of view on this proposiiton.
    1. Research the issue of whether the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was necessary to stop the war, or were done for some other reason.
    2. Many people believe Hiroshima Day ought to be commemorated in Australia as a significant national day. Prepare a case for or against such a commemoration.
    3. Do you think Australians should bear responsibility for what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Explain your response.

Further Resources


Go to Australian Biography and select Sir Marcus Oliphant