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24 April 2017 11:22 (South Africa)

How to win a Nobel prize using sticky tape

  • Theresa Mallinson
    Theresa Mallinson
  • Sci-Tech
phi nob main

Move over, Bill Nye the Science Guy and both Mythbusters. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov are the new cool kids on the science block. Everyday – and not so everyday – objects featured in their individual and collaborative research include levitating frogs, publishing hamsters and pencil lead. Oh, and besides putting the spark back into science, they’ve also just picked up the Nobel prize for physics. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Geim and Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel physics prize on Tuesday “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”. But before the two scientists could conduct said experiments, they had to isolate a layer of graphene only one-atom thick in the first place. This was a tricky problem, as layers of carbon atoms attract each other. The solution, though, was simple – if hardly elegant – applying sticky tape to granite flakes to peel off the carbon flakes, and then repeating the process until they were left with a single layer of graphene.

The basement-laboratory style of their prize-winning discovery (which has also garnered them the EuroPhysics Prize, as well as accolades from the UK Institute, the US National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society, among others) is no surprise, given their tendency (Geim’s in particular) for kooky experimentation. Until his Nobel prize win, Geim was probably best-known for making a frog levitate. And, no, he doesn’t moonlight as a magician, not that we’re aware of anyhow. Neither was the frog’s levitation achieved through yogic prowess. Instead it was the result of magnetic levitation, with the amphibian being subjected to a magnetic field of 16 tesla (to give you an idea of the force involved, that’s about 1 million times more than the Earth’s natural magnetic field), creating a small electric current that generates a magnetic field in the opposite direction.

Watch: Levitating frog.

In 2000 Geim, together with Michael Berry, won an Ig Nobel prize for this feat. The Ig Nobels are a parody of the Nobels, with awards being dished out for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. Geim is the only individual ever to have been honoured with both accolades. We think he’ll be pretty chuffed at that record, after all, this is the guy who once named his favourite hamster as a co-author on a research paper. (The hamster was cited as H.A.M.S. ter Tisha.)

But to return to Geim and Novoselov’s Nobel-winning achievement: What does graphene mean to the average person? Not a whole lot, at the moment. This is largely owing to the recent nature of the discovery – the scientists first published their findings in 2004. (It’s the shortest gap between the original research and winning a Nobel since Johannes George Bednorz and Karl Alexander Müller won the physics prize in 1987, only 18 months after they published their discovery of high-temperature super-conductivity.) Compare this with Robert Edwards, who won the Nobel prize for medicine on Monday for developing in-vitro fertilisation. He first succeeded in fertilising a human egg in a laboratory as far back as 1968, and his research bore practical results when the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born 10 years later – 32 years ago. 

Photo: Russian-born scientist Konstantin Novoselov. (Reuters)

By contrast, Geim and Novoselov’s discovery hasn’t had any real-world implications for consumers, yet. But the potential is there, in abundance. Graphene can conduct electricity and research is being conducted into making graphene transistors, graphene touchscreens and even graphene sensors. Then, of course, there are probably a multitude of future uses that scientists haven’t even imagined yet. 

Geim doesn’t come across as the arrogant type, but he is nonetheless excited about graphene’s huge potential. “My hope is that graphene and other two-dimensional crystals will change our everyday lives,” he says. We’ll have to wait a while to see exactly how that happens, but for now perhaps the most important aspect of Geim and Novolesov’s achievement is that they’ve created a new perception of “the scientist”. 

They’re not crusty old men in mouldy lab coats who speak in equations, but young, (Novolesov is only 36 and Geim 51) energetic guys who actually have, like, communication skills. They’re also reassuringly normal. Geim endearingly told reporters at a press conference of his initial reaction to being awarded the Nobel prize: “When I got the telephone call, I thought, ‘oh shit!’”. And the accolade didn’t go to his head either – he said he would go to work as normal this week as he had some papers to finish writing. 

Sure, Geim and Novolesov may have just won the greatest prize in physics, but they encapsulate the natural flair of the coke-and-mentos experimenters rather than that of the geeky researcher. They’re genius-level clever, yet not at the expense of losing their curiosity about how the world works – an attitude that’s played no small part in their success. We owe them a huge thank you, not least for putting the fizz back into physics. DM

Read more: Nature, New Scientist.

Main photo: Russian-born scientist Andre Geim in Manchester, May 29, 2009. REUTERS.

  • Theresa Mallinson
    Theresa Mallinson
  • Sci-Tech

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