Author(s): Andrew Ramsey
The story that bonds Ernest Rutherford and Marcus Oliphant is as extraordinary as it is unlikely. They were kindred souls, schooled and steeped in the furthest frontiers of Britain's empire, whose restless intellect and tireless conviction fused in the crucible of discovery at Cambridge University's celebrated Cavendish Laboratory, at a time when nature's deepest secrets were being revealed.
Their brilliance illuminated the sub-atomic recesses of the natural world and, as a direct result, set loose the power of nuclear fusion. It was a heartfelt, enduring partnership, born at the University of Adelaide's modest physics department and flourishing further in the confines of the Cavendish before ultimately driving the famed Manhattan Project, which produced the world's first nuclear weapons, unleashed to such devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Rutherford and Oliphant were men with a shared devotion to pure science, who, through circumstance and necessity, found themselves betrayed as instruments of the war they detested but were duty-bound to prosecute.
Consequently, their influence was pivotal in the last great global conflict the world witnessed and in engendering the thermonuclear threat that has held the planet hostage ever since. Yet their pioneering work lives on too in a vast array of innovations seeded by nuclear physics, from radiocarbon dating and TV screens to life-saving diagnostic-imaging devices.