Making Space for Nuclear Physics: Professor Marcus Oliphant, Imperial Science and Terra Nullius

by Christopher R. Hill



In Australia and the United Kingdom, the early development of nuclear physics was heavily conditioned by spaces of empire. The distinctive experiences that Australian scientists brought to the UK were transformative for disciplines and institutions, giving rise to experimental and nuclear physics from the late nineteenth century onwards. [1] Indeed, the opportunities a shared imperial past created for intellectual exchange and travel did more than merely facilitate the transfer of nuclear knowledge; it also actively and uniquely produced it. [2] The making of nuclear knowledge between Australia and the UK was thus a form of scientific imperialism, yet not a monolithic one, where pre-determined practices were diffused outward from the imperial metropole to the antipodean periphery. [3] Rather, it was multi-faceted, where experiences of empire and the comings-and-goings of ‘settler physicists’ were foundational from the beginning. [4] Just as imperial spaces influenced the emergence of nuclear physics, so too did the application of that science lead to the construction of new nuclear imperial spaces: knowledge and space co-produced one another. This became evident not only through the founding of new centres of research by settler physicists as they returned home, but also through the violent spaces most often associated with Australia in the nuclear age: the test sites of the Montebello Islands, Western Australia, Emu Field and Maralinga, South Australia. These spaces—stripped of their Indigenous histories and treated as ‘no-man’s lands’ or terrae nullius—offer insight into the ideological operation of this imperial science. Unable to accommodate life against or outside its own parameters, this science neutralised ancient lands into natural laboratories: terra nullius was an ideological precondition to laboratory space. Yet the colonising principle of terra nullius was not only an adjunct to scientific expansion; it was also tragically realised through imperial science as Indigenous lands were irradiated beyond future use.

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Fig.1 Blue plaques commemorating Marcus Oliphant, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls at the University of Birmingham, cropped image, photo by PicturePrince Creative Commons, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0. 

In navigating these dialectics of space and science in nuclear imperialism, I will briefly reflect on the career of Professor Marcus Oliphant, one of Australia’s most distinguished physicists and a lifetime proponent of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In 1927, Oliphant moved from his home city of Adelaide to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where he worked under a pioneer of nuclear physics and imperial science more widely—the New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford. Less than ten years later, Oliphant was appointed as Poynting Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham and within a year of his arrival he was also instrumental in the hiring of German-born physicist, Rudolf Peierls. Alongside Otto Frisch—an Austrian whose visit to Birmingham was prolonged by the outbreak of the Second World War—Peierls proved the feasibility and magnitude of an atomic explosion in a document that became known as the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum [Fig. 1]. This effectively triggered the onset of a coordinated response to develop nuclear weapons, initially in the UK and then in the USA through the Manhattan Project, culminating in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [5] As a result of Oliphant’s wartime contributions to nuclear and radar technologies and his talent for leadership, he was much sought-after in the post-war period and ultimately succumbed to an offer to return to Australia. In 1950, he became a founding director of Australian National University (ANU), a new research-intensive institution on the outskirts of Canberra. [6] This marked a defining moment in the recycling of nuclear space and knowledge back into post-war Australia.




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Fig.2 Cloak and Objects collected from the ‘Dja Dja Wurrung and possibly the Yorta Yorta people’ of Victoria, photographed by John Hunter Kerr and put on display in 1854 in the Bendigo and Melbourne Exhibitions, themselves inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851.The editors would like to thank Museums Victoria for their assistance in identifying the Language Groups.

At each stage in Oliphant’s career, the empire served as a mechanism for nuclear knowledge—imperial spaces helped produce nuclear physics and in turn this science was reified in nuclear spaces, often in ways that Oliphant vehemently opposed. The role of empire in Oliphant’s journey was pivotal from the outset. His passion for particle physics was ignited when Ernest Rutherford gave a talk in Adelaide in 1925. [7] Oliphant’s subsequent move to Cavendish was made possible by the same scholarship from which Rutherford had been a beneficiary in the late nineteenth century: the 1851 scholarship. This award represented the apotheosis of imperial science, having been funded out of the profits of the Great Exhibition of the same year—a showcase of what the imperial historian, Peter Hoffenberg, described as the ‘ideas, meanings and practices of empire and nation’. [8] The purpose of the Great Exhibition, to highlight ‘the Industry of All Nations’ across the empire, is revealing for how examples of labour and work were hierarchically ordered around ‘race’ and ‘progress’. In this regard, the Exhibition pointed towards the making of a scientific and technological imperative that can also be detected in the disregard for Indigenous life during nuclear tests. To quote from its official encyclopaedia, the display of Aboriginal tools alongside those of other groups was necessary to distinguish the ‘differences in their respective values … the productions of those who are commonly called ‘Aborigines’, or the less civilised races—are substantially the inferior fruits of human industry’. [9] The Great Exhibition, an event in which Indigenous Australians became fixed in the imperial gaze, served to fund a high science that a century later proved even more oblivious to their welfare. [10] For late nineteenth century imperial science, however, the 1851 scholarship offered a means by which settler physicists could realise their ideal of a ‘Commonwealth of modern science’, invigorating experimental physics and overcoming the traditional model of the ‘fossilised’ professor. In the words of historian of imperial science, Katrina Dean, the scholarship was a pathway by which modern science in the UK could be ‘colonised by the colonials.’ [11] The stage was set for a more bracing and robust form of scientific practice.

In Birmingham, Oliphant was able to blend a Cavendish model of science with a city and university ethos that had been crafted out of the science and industry of empire. Birmingham may have been a city of a thousand trades in which small-scale workshops proliferated, but its civic identity was informed by a set of universalising principles that had been reinforced by global imperial power. The Birmingham ethos had coalesced out of the Midlands Enlightenment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, itself closely associated with the Lunar Society—an elite dining club frequented by luminaries such as James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. In the late nineteenth century, this ethos of science and industry also gained effective political expression. Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s and later colonial secretary under Lord Salisbury, was also a leading supporter of ‘imperial preference’—a system of free trade agreements between Britain and her colonies. Chamberlain was also pivotal in establishing the University of Birmingham through royal charter in 1900, an institution that enshrined the precepts of industry and self-confidence that characterised the city: Birmingham was the ‘first civic university’. It was to be a place of ‘universal instruction’, to quote Chamberlain, which whilst offering space for ‘original research’ would also ensure that the ‘trades of the … university [would] forever associate their name and … industry with this new institution’. [12]


From these guiding tenets laid down by the arch-imperialist, Chamberlain, the trajectory of a bold, global-minded pursuit of scientific knowledge was set. The real-world emphasis of Chamberlain as the first chancellor of the university was also matched by the more free-thinking speculations of the first principal, the physicist and spiritualist, Oliver Lodge. As early as 1919, Lodge gave a prescient speech about the potential of nuclear energy, only two years after Rutherford knowingly induced the first artificial nuclear reaction at the University of Manchester. [13] When Oliphant gained his professorship in 1936, he continued to build towards a ‘Commonwealth of modern science’ in a city and university well-equipped to nurture this ideal. Oliphant employed postgraduates from across the empire and Australia in particular; he also secured a substantial investment to construct the largest high-energy particle cyclotron in Europe—the Birmingham synchrotron. The funds for this had been raised with the support of Joseph Chamberlain’s son and the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. [14] The city of a thousand trades had turned to ‘big science’. [Fig.3]


Fig.3  Professor M.L.E Oliphant, F.R.S., nuclear physicist, and the Birmingham synchrotron, Birmingham–Proton Synchrotron–Photographs,

Courtesy of  the Barr Smith Library Archives, Adelaide, South Australia.


It was the large-scale military-industrial possibilities of nuclear energy that further catapulted Oliphant’s career after the Manhattan Project and also began to disturb his notion of a Commonwealth of science. Oliphant, who was ‘sort of proud that the bomb worked’, yet ‘appalled at what it had done to human beings’, seemed to become hostage to his own vision of a scientific utopia in the post-war period. [15] Indeed, the post-war Australian Labour government, led by Ben Chifley, did much to sponsor and pander to this vision, partly to persuade Oliphant to return to Australia and launch the Research School of Physical Sciences at ANU. After discussions with Oliphant, the proposals for this university began to emulate the model of Commonwealth and big science in which the Australian physicist had invested his dreams for a peaceful atomic future. The location of the university seemed to Oliphant a spatial microcosm of his own career and practice. Canberra could become a university town such as Cambridge, whilst the proximity of the campus to the Snowy Mountains—the projected heartland of the Australian nuclear industry—also offered scope for the big science that Oliphant had experienced at Birmingham. Yet if Oliphant viewed ANU as a stepping stone to his vision of atomic peace, then he would end up disappointed. The prospect of merging the dynamism of Commonwealth science with the industrial might of a peaceful, Australian-style Manhattan Project was always unlikely, particularly if uncoupled from military priorities. Perhaps this explains Oliphant’s involvement in defence policy and research: he interpreted it as a necessary evil if he was also going to finance and shape the peaceful future of nuclear energy. Remarkably for a self-professed pacifist, the physicist even advised that the UK pursue its own nuclear weapons programme after being shut out by the USA; he also advised the Australian government to reject UK defence proposals that would preclude their own manufacture of atomic bombs. [16]


Even before Oliphant took up his post at ANU in 1950, his efforts to make space for nuclear physics and recycle the ideals of a Commonwealth science back into Australia were already embattled. As the historian, Wayne Reynolds, acknowledges, the request by the UK for test sites in South and West Australia in 1946 constituted the origins of the UK decision to build nuclear weapons, since these sites had been specifically measured for atomic testing. In Australian nuclear history, the tension between Oliphant’s utopia of nuclear peace and the grim reality of test sites and radiation is personified by a dispute between Oliphant and Ernest Titterton, a Birmingham-educated physicist. Titterton, appointed inaugural chair of physics at ANU by Oliphant as part of his nuclear vision, went against the Australian wishes by accepting an offer to help direct the tests. This moment signalled the final descent of Commonwealth science into nuclear imperialism. [17] The dichotomy between these two categories, shaped by the passing of physics from the experimental to the military and applied, should not be overstated: the prejudices and values of nuclear testing were latent in the Commonwealth ideal from the beginning. This was highlighted by the disregard that all Commonwealth scientists had for Indigenous Australians. In the rarefied world of nuclear physics in the British Empire, Indigenous peoples were viewed as outside of science: a by-product of the racialised assumptions with which imperial science had grown up and retraceable in this case to 1851 and its scholarship system. [18] Even Oliphant was sealed off to the fate of Indigenous Australians in his struggle to bring about the Commonwealth ideal of an atomic Australia. Indeed, the physicist later opposed the nomination of Sir Douglas Nichols, a Yorta Yorta man from Victoria, to succeed him as governor of South Australia. He privately reflected that there is ‘something inherent in the personality of the ‘Aborigine’ which makes it difficult for him to adapt fully to the ways of the white man.’ [19]

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Fig. 4: Joseph Chamberlain ‘Old Joe’ ’s memorial clock tower from the Poynting Physics Building, at the University of Birmingham, photo by Tim Ellis, Flicker, CC BY-NC 2.0.

To conclude, it seems fitting to return to Birmingham, the home city of Titterton and where Oliphant was able to embed a Commonwealth science and ‘settler physics.’ In the late 1930s and 1940s, when Oliphant was head of the university’s physics department, it is difficult to understate the gravity of the meetings that took place in its physics building itself, lying in the shadow of ‘Old Joe’ Chamberlain’s memorial clock tower. [Fig. 4] Between Oliphant, Frisch and Peierls, the debates about physics, war and peace must have been immense. The sense of historical destiny on Oliphant’s return to Australia must have been equally weighty. Yet the physicist never escaped the shadow of Old Joe. The imperial experience was the way marker of Oliphant’s rise and fall. It is testament to his significance that it also presaged the foundations and spaces of nuclear Australia. Today, it is the dark side of Oliphant’s vision—blinkered to a human condition outside the racialised lens of imperial science—that has had the most enduring legacy. The irradiated soils of Western and South Australia have become the self-fulfilling prophecy of what colonisers always claimed: terrae nullius devoid of and unfit for human life. Indeed, it was the merging of terra nullius with imperial and nuclear science that put its anti-environmental and anti-human propositions into spatial practice: the atomic dream became a living nightmare.


[1] Katrina J. Dean, ‘Settler Physics in Australia and Cambridge, 1850–1950’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2004.

[2] Gabrielle Hecht (ed.), Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Cold War, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2011; David N. Livingstone, Putting Science in its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003.

[3] George Basalla, ‘The Spread of Western Science’, Science, vol. 156, no. 3775, 1967, pp. 611–621; Richard Drayton, ‘Science, Medicine and Empire’ in Robin W. Winks and Alaine Low (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume V: Historiography, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, pp. 264–275

[4] Katrina J. Dean, ‘Inscribing Settler Science: Ernest Rutherford, Thomas Laby and the Making of Careers in Physics’, History of Science, vol. 41, no. 2, 2003, pp. 217–240; Heike Jöns, ‘Academic Travel from Cambridge University and the Formation of Centres of Knowledge, 1885-1954, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, pp. 338–362.

[5] Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 2–3.

[6] Stephen G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University 1946-1996, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1996.

[7] David Ellyard, ‘Mark Oliphant FRS and the Birmingham Proton Synchrotron’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales, 2011; Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard, Oliphant, The Life and Times of Sir Mark Oliphant, Axiom Books, Adelaide, 1981; Andrew Ramsay, The Basis of Everything: Rutherford, Oliphant and the Coming of the Atomic Bomb, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2019.

[8] Peter H. Hoffenberg, An Empire on Display: English, Indian and Australian Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace to the Great War, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 29–30.

[9] The Crystal Palace and its contents: being an illustrated encyclopaedia of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations 1851 embellished with upwards of five hundred engravings, 1851–52, W. Clark, London, p. 42.

[10] The Great Exhibition was a watershed for ‘putting Aboriginals on parade’ and subsequent exhibitions displayed not only tools, but also weapons and casts of bodies themselves. Hoffenberg, An Empire, pp. 129–165; Sadiah Qureshi, Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire, and Anthropology in Nineteenth Century Britain, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2011; Elizabeth Willis, ‘Exhibiting Aboriginal Industry: A Story behind a ‘re-discovered’ Bark Drawing from Victoria’, Aboriginal History, vol. 27, 2003, pp. 39–58

[11] Dean, ‘Inscribing Settler Science’.

[12] Eric W. Ives, Leonard D. Schwarz and Diane K. Drummond, The First Civic University: Birmingham 1880–1980: An Introductory History, University of Birmingham Press, Birmingham, 2000, p. 79.

[13] John E. Harris, ‘The University of Birmingham, Nuclear power, and Start of UK Reactor Programme’, Materials Science and Technology, vol. 6, no. 10, 1990, pp. 937-939

[14] John H. Carver et al, 'Marcus Laurence Elwin Oliphant 1901–2000', Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 14, no. 3, 2003, pp. 337-364.

[15] Cockburn and Ellyard, p. 122.

[16] Wayne Reynolds, ‘Rethinking the Joint Project: Australia’s Bid for Nuclear Weapons, 1945-1960, vol. 41, no. 3, 1998, pp. 853-873.

[17] Elizabeth Tynan, Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2016; Frank Walker, Maralinga: The Chilling Exposé of our Secret Nuclear Shame and Betrayal of our Troops and Country, Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2017.

[18] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine, originally appearing in A Thousand Plateaus translated by Brian Massumi, Wormwood Distribution, Seattle, 2010.

[19] Cockburn and Ellyard, p. 347.