Article Title

The indiscretion of Mark Oliphant: How an Australian kick-started the American Atomic Bomb Project


In 1940, Mark Oliphant was the head of Physics at the University of Birmingham. In his hands, he held a memorandum from two of his research fellows, which proved, in theory at least, that a super-bomb made from the fission of the uranium-235 isotope could be produced. The significance of this research in war-time conditions was self-evident and it was tabled at a British government committee meeting on the atomic bomb and then forwarded to the USA. Yet in 1941, when Oliphant visited Washington, he was dismayed to learn that the British reports were kept locked in a safe and that they received no action. Rather than returning to Britain, Oliphant went instead to the University of California, Berkeley to visit his friend Ernest Lawrence. Oliphant and Lawrence’s meeting was also attended by Robert Oppenheimer and from that moment a reinvigoration of the American atomic bomb project might be identified. Years later, Oppenheimer called Oliphant’s visit to Berkeley an ‘indiscretion’. But was it? By combining archival research with an analysis of how scientists collaborate, this work argues that Oliphant did in fact breach secrecy protocols. However, it was done in order to achieve the desired outcome of accelerated collaboration and research between Britain and the USA.


history, science, Mark Oliphant, American Atomic Bomb Project

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