June 2014

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

Mark Oliphant was a physicist on a mission.

It was 1941 and the Nazis were building, it was believed, a weapon of incredible power. For Britain to beat them to it, American help was essential. But the United States was neutral and its key scientists were being kept in the dark about British progress on the device. So, in late August, Oliphant set out to goad them into action.

Adelaide born and educated, Oliphant had conducted advanced nuclear research at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford, the man who split the atom. Oliphant was a tireless experimenter who had proved that atomic nuclei could be fused to release energy, and he was a key contributor to Britain’s scientific war effort.

Crossing the Atlantic in an unheated bomber – he considered the Pan-Am Clipper via Lisbon too slow – the dapper, white-haired 39-year-old arrived in the US ostensibly to confer with his American colleagues on radar development. Appalled at the lethargy of the Washington scientific bureaucracy, he wasted no time dropping the “bomb” word. Until then, some of the Americans thought they were working on a power source for submarines.

Exasperated, Oliphant flew to California to speak with his old friend Ernest Lawrence, the US’s youngest Nobel Prize winner and the director of the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley. Lawrence drove him up “Cyclotron Hill”, site of his still-to-be-built particle accelerator, where, safe from eavesdropping, Oliphant pitched the British view that gaseous diffusion of uranium-235 on a massive scale could lead to the production of a bomb in time to decide the outcome of the war.

Back in Lawrence’s office, they were joined by another Berkeley professor, J Robert Oppenheimer, a leading figure in theoretical physics. Oliphant reiterated the urgent need for American scientists to join forces with the British and get cracking on the bomb project. But this was the first that the intense, contemplative Oppenheimer had heard of the scheme. Already on an FBI watch list due to his left-wing affiliations, Oppenheimer was alarmed to find himself dropped into such a high-level security breach. Clearing his throat, he suggested they end the conversation, since he was not involved with the matter. “But that’s terrible,” Oliphant said. “We need you.”

All this badgering did the trick. Shortly after Oliphant’s return to England, President Franklin D Roosevelt committed the US to the development of a nuclear weapon. Oppenheimer went on to lead the project. By passing secret information to him, Oliphant may have guaranteed Oppenheimer’s involvement. He knew too much to be left out.

Both men came to fear the terrible destructive power they unleashed in 1945. As it turned out, Germany had abandoned the idea of an atom bomb in 1942.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

June 2014

From the front page

Image of ‘Joan Didion’s “The White Album”’

Joan Didion’s eerily contemporary ‘The White Album’

The seminal essay’s ongoing resonance is explored in this interactive production coming to Sydney Festival

Ready to rumble

Crowds cheer on the destructive prowess of Pot Head and Wanda at the Robowars National Championship

Images of Aaron McGrath rehearsing as Johnny Mullagh in ‘Black Cockatoo’

A tale of triumph and exploitation: ‘Black Cockatoo’

The little-known story of history-making Aboriginal cricketer Johnny Mullagh and his team is told in this new play

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands


In This Issue

Clive Palmer the trickster

The Palmer United Party are anti-politics wildcards in Parliament

Richard Strauss in 1904. Photo by Edward Steichen

A century and a half of Richard Strauss

A look back at the last of the great Romantic composers

Nuclear waste at Muckaty

A trip to the site of a proposed nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory

Follow You (detail), 2013, Wang Qingsong. Courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.

‘Reformation’ at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery

Judith Neilson’s groundbreaking collection of contemporary Chinese art


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

Cover of Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ [detail]

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This is Not Propaganda’

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller

Chips Rafferty & The Monkees


Read on

Image of ‘Joan Didion’s “The White Album”’

Joan Didion’s eerily contemporary ‘The White Album’

The seminal essay’s ongoing resonance is explored in this interactive production coming to Sydney Festival

Images of Aaron McGrath rehearsing as Johnny Mullagh in ‘Black Cockatoo’

A tale of triumph and exploitation: ‘Black Cockatoo’

The little-known story of history-making Aboriginal cricketer Johnny Mullagh and his team is told in this new play

Image of a woman’s hands

Is elder abuse avoidable?

Our current aged-care system makes it difficult to deliver care in its truest sense

Big in Morocco

Australian cinema finds a new audience at the Marrakech International Film Festival


×
×