Correpondence between Maurice Wilkins and Sir Mark Oliphant

In this post, I want to highlight correspondence that I have recently come across between Maurice Wilkins and his fellow antipodean scientist, Sir Marcus Oliphant. The letters relate to Wilkins' biographical work on Sir John Randall for his Royal Society Memoir. Oliphant was a key figure for both Randall and Wilkins as he hired and supported them both as the Head of Physics at the University of Birmingham. It was there that the Randall-Wilkins partnership first began with research on on phosphorescence and continued in some degree with (the notable exception of the radar research by Randall and Wilkins' own involvement in the Manhattan Project ) until Sir John's retirement from King's College London in 1970. The correspondence between Oliphant and Wilkins are interesting in the insights that they shed regarding the creation of the cavity magnetron, shared ideas on scientific discovery and their mutual esteem for one another. 

Figure 1

Figure 1: Letter from Maurice Wilkins to Sir Mark Oliphant, dated 23 March 1987. Wilkins sends Oliphant a finished copy of his Royal Society Memoir on Sir John Randall. He relates that he decided in his own account of the creation of the cavity magnetron to deal with the rumours regarding the possibility of John Randall and Harry Boot being influenced by Russian scientists before the war. He also states a deep gratitude towards Oliphant for his support at Cambridge [where Oliphant was his personal tutor], Birmingham [where Oliphant hired Wilkins after he left Cambridge with a second class degree] and at Berkley [where Oliphant recruited him to be part of his team working on the Manhattan Project].  

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 Figures 2-4: Letter from Sir Mark Oliphant to Maurice Wilkins, undated [1987]. The letter begins by passing on the sad news of the death of Rosa Oliphant, his wife of sixty three years but his pleasure on receiving Maurice's letter and Royal Society Memoir. Oliphant recounts his own memory of the discovery of the cavity magnetron and how he gave the problem to Randall and Boot; Randall's brilliance in using the Hertz wire-loop detector; the difficulties in the lab between James Sayers and Randall and how close the Russians had come with their own research. In regards to Wilkins' remarks about him, he thanks him and states that he is proud to be associated with a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine and contributing to what Ernest Rutherford called the 'stamp collecting' of quantitative science [which was anything other than pure physics]. 

The correspondence makes interesting reading because of the honesty and clarity with which the two scientists view the developments of the cavity magnetron and generally their lives as a whole. As Maurice Wilkins wrote in his autobiography: "[Oliphant] had a down-to-earth approach to physics, and believed physicists should make their own apparatus. This suited me well, since I had grown up in my family's workshop tradition...Altogether, Oliphant was very good to me. I felt we were on the same wavelength" (p32-33).

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 The final letter in this series relates to my previous post regarding MI5 suspicion that Maurice Wilkins was a soviet spy ( As a brief recap, MI5 began monitoring Wilkins after his defence of the British physicist and convicted spy, Alan Nunn May, was passed on by an informant when Wilkins was working in St Andrew University in 1946. Wilkins had argued heatedly in support of Niel Bohr's belief that atomic secrets should be shared with the international community. Oliphant states in the letter: " I remain convinced that Bohr's idea of openness, of a world without secrecy or barriers to any kind of communication, is the only way to achieve a world with out war".Sadly, we do not have Wilkins' reply but undoubtedly he would have shared the sentiment of his former mentor and friend.

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