Posted on 05 August, 2016 in C4E, Events, Partnerships

Oliphant Family Generosity

Oliphant Family Generosity

On 26 July Darwin High School welcomed Mrs Monica Oliphant AO to our school assembly. Mrs Oliphant was here on behalf of the Oliphant family to present Darwin High with a portrait of renowned physicist, Sir Mark Oliphant, her father-in-law. The portrait is on long-term loan to the school and will be displayed in the E Block Science area.

Sir Mark was an Australian physicist and humanitarian who played an important role in the first experimental demonstration of nuclear fusion, and developed new concepts in radar that helped to win the Battle of Britain in WW2. Later in life, Sir Mark established the Australian National University and went on to become Governor of South Australia.

As a Centre for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, Darwin High School is privileged to display a portrait of a man that has made such a lasting contribution to the scientific community and to science education in Australia.

‘Hopefully [the portrait will] inspire those who see it... Darwin High is of special importance as it is a place where anyone can achieve their dreams, it is a Centre of Excellence in the sciences, and its location in the Top End, reminded the family of Sir Mark’s greatest loves – the sea and the rugged beauty of Australia.’ Monica Oliphant, AO

Mrs Oliphant delivered an engaging presentation to students at a whole school assembly (a full copy is available below) and following this, she visited our Year 10 Girls Science class. Mrs Oliphant is herself a well-respected scientist who has devoted much of her life to research and development of renewable energies. Student were able to ask Mrs Oliphant about her work and her experiences as a woman working in this field.

Full Transcript of Presentation on July 26th 2016 at Darwin High School by Mrs Monica Oliphant AO

Principal, Mr Read, teachers and students of Darwin High, it is indeed an honour for me to be here today on your first day back at school after the holidays. This large photo was up on the stage of Sir Mark Oliphant’s memorial ceremony held in Adelaide University’s Bonython hall in August, 2000. He died just a couple of months short of his 99th birthday. Afterwards the photo went to the Investigator Science & Technology Centre in Adelaide until that closed down. The family then thought – where should it go?

We wanted the portrait to go somewhere of significance, both to the family and to the recipient. We decided that a school was the most fitting place as we wanted it to hopefully inspire those who see it to realise that any person, no matter how ordinary you think you are, can achieve greatness just as Sir Mark did. Darwin High is of special importance as it is a place where anyone can achieve their dreams, it is a Centre of Excellence in the sciences, and its location in the Top End, reminded the family of Sir Mark’s greatest loves – the sea and the rugged beauty of Australia.

Sir Mark came several times to Darwin to be with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and felt a real affinity for the place - and given his great-grandson is studying here now, it seemed the best place for the portrait to live.

A very short potted history about Sir Mark. He was born in Adelaide in October 1901, the eldest of 5 boys. A time when there were still horse drawn trams in the city and no electricity. His mother was a primary school teacher and father a clerical worker. He initially had trouble at school till it was realised that he was deaf in one ear and was very short sighted – so he was moved to a front desk of the class where his progress improved. He went to Unley then Adelaide high schools where he did not really excel – coming midway in his class even in science and coming near the bottom in French. The language did not interest him. However, he was a solid student and did well enough to gain entry to university where initially he did medicine but did not like it and moved to physics as he always enjoyed practical experiments. (He once electrified the door knob to his room to prevent his brothers annoying him.)

Sir Mark came to his own in his 3rd university year when the Physics Department had a visit from Lord Rutherford – who was enroute from NZ to Cambridge by boat. Rutherford is known as the father of nuclear physics and his department was working on the nuclear theory of the atom. Sir Mark decided there and then that he wanted to study with Rutherford and worked hard to get a research scholarship to Cambridge, which he got a few years later.

In the 1920s and 30s Rutherford’s lab was a wonderful place for atomic research and several people got Nobel prizes. Sir Mark almost did for his discovery of tritium the 3rd isotope of hydrogen. During this time he met many well know scientists of the time such as Einstein who he said was a terrible lecturer, talking into the blackboard and scribbling incomprehensible formulae, and Madame Curie who he said was quite a tyrant and walked around with bits of radium in her pockets – she did eventually die of cancer. He also knew and liked Niels Bohr – theory of atomic structure fame.

After leaving Cambridge Sir Mark headed up a department in Birmingham where they developed new concepts in radar that helped to win the Battle of Britain in WW2 and also the cavity magnetron which is now used in microwave ovens. People thought microwaves were death rays and so Sir Mark called in journalists into his lab and had microwaves beamed at his head to show they caused no harm - except to make him come out in a sweat. (Don’t try it!)

Towards the end of the war he was England’s representative on the Manhattan project to build the first atomic bomb before the Nazis managed to, and like many scientists was horrified of the outcome of dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but it ultimately ended WW2. The experience caused him to become a pacifist and later Sir Mark joined many antiwar marches and global peace committees.

In the 1950s he was invited back to Australia to establish the Australian National University in Canberra. He was the second choice the first being Sir Howard Florey the discoverer of penicillin, who refused on the grounds that coming back to Australia was academic suicide. Sir Mark did not agree and wanted to give back to his country. He set up the ANU which is now the top research university in Australia. Later as he approached 70 he was asked to be Governor of South Australia which he was for 5 years being anything but a rubber stamp in the position and being very vocal on environmental issues.

In his obituary, the Telegraph newspaper of the UK said “Oliphant was a man of unassailable integrity who could be impetuous, indiscreet and stubborn. He had a hearty style but was markedly sensitive to injustice.” And this is how I remember him, his integrity, a sort of naivety that we could have a world without war, his passionate pursuit of the truth and his infectious laugh. I was lucky to know him and learnt a lot from him. He once said to me how fortunate he was to have worked in an area that he loved – he sometimes made mistakes, like everyone, but that never prevented him pursuing his goals, and so if there is one message to leave with you from Sir Mark it is to aim for a career in an area that you really believe in.

There is no doubt that passion, hard work and a bit of courage to stand up for your beliefs will go a long way – best of luck all of you for the future and thankyou Mr Read for the opportunity to speak today.

Monica Oliphant

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