Sir Mark Oliphant

Sir Mark Oliphant

The South Australian Science Teachers Association has been privileged to have had Sir Mark Oliphant as our Patron for the SASTA Oliphant Science Awards since their inception in 1981.

Like many of the recipients of these awards, Sir Mark was born in South Australia and received his primary and secondary education in state schools here. An outstanding student, Sir Mark investigated a number of career pathways and eventually settled on the pursuit of science at the University of Adelaide. Sir Mark showed a love of tinkering and invention from an early age, and it was in the science laboratories in Adelaide that he started to make his own scientific apparatus. He was to become one of the leaders in the design and construction of revolutionary apparatus, including particle accelerators used to investigate the structure and interactions of the nuclei of atoms.

In 1927 a scholarship took Sir Mark to the famous Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, UK where he worked with Lord Rutherford, who was a pioneer in atomic physics.

Together with other great scientists including Fermi, Lawrence and Oppenheimer, Sir Mark created the brave new world of nuclear physics. His expertise in this area was to lead Sir Mark to the Manhattan Project in America and to his participation in the development of the first atomic bomb.

Sir Mark was always a champion of the peaceful uses of atomic energy, and in 1937 accepted his first professorship as head of the Physics Department at Birmingham University where he was to continue to push the boundaries of knowledge of nuclear physics. In this year he was elected as a 'Fellow of the Royal Society'.

In 1955 Sir Mark's reputation as scientist, research director and administrator were well established in the scientific community. This, together with his declared interest in establishing world class educational research facilities in Australia, led Sir Mark back to Australia at the request of the Government. In this year he founded the Research School of Physical Sciences at the newly established Australian National University in Canberra.

In the years after retirement from academic life, Sir Mark became a household name in South Australia where he gave distinguished service as our State Governor from 1971 to 1976.

A clear demonstration of his ongoing support of science and science education was provided to the science community in our state when Sir Mark agreed, in 1981, to lend his name as patron of the SASTA Oliphant Science Awards.

Sir Mark's legacy will live on in many ways, not least through the thousands of students and teachers who participate in these awards annually. Of special significance is that Sir Mark, through his love of tinkering and invention, made the perpetual Oliphant Trophy himself.