Levitating frogs and the power of play
Watching graphite peel off the point of a pencil I was sharpening reminded me of a quirky tale about levitating frogs and a Nobel Prize that began with playfulness and a pencil.
This is a story about the power of play and a levitating frog. Its hero is a man named Sir Andre Konstantin Geim, a Russian-born Dutch and British citizen and professor at the University of Manchester, whose dictum is that it’s better to be wrong than boring.
After levitating the frog, he explained that, in his experience, if people didn’t have a sense of humour they didn’t make very good scientists. He has and he is: Geim’s the only scientist to win both a Nobel Prize in 2010 for his discovery of the world’s strongest substance, graphene, and an Ig Nobel Prize awarded for experiments so outlandish they first make people laugh – then make them think. It’s not a new story but worth retelling.
When news of the flying frog began making the rounds in April 1997, people assumed it was an April Fool’s joke. It wasn’t and may result in anti-gravity cars that never touch the road. This is how it happened.
It had never occurred to scientists that water’s magnetism – billions of times weaker than iron – was strong enough to counter gravity. But one evening, while working with Radboud University’s High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands, Geim set the electromagnet to maximum power and poured water into the expensive machine’s hollow core. He can’t remember why he acted so unprofessionally.
The descending water “got stuck” within the vertical bore and balls of water started levitating. He had discovered that a “feeble magnetic response of water” could act against a magnetic force, including that of the earth. Frogs are mostly water so he tried with a frog and it levitated too, with no ill effect on the creature.
It was the first time a living organism had levitated purely due to a magnetic field. He would share the Ig Nobel prize with colleague Michael Berry and be awarded the International Creativity Prize for Water.
What seemed like a late-nighFt lark evolved into what Geim calls the Friday Night Experiments – a bunch of scientists working after hours every Friday on the “crazy things that probably won’t pan out at all, but if they do, it would be really surprising”. From the start of his career, he had devoted 10% of his lab time to this kind of research.
The Friday Night Experiments were often so outlandish and such fun that they had to limit how long someone worked on them so as not to hurt the careers of the lab’s postdoctoral fellows or graduate students. Researchers experimented on crazy, unfundable things simply because they interested them.
Often, said Geim, “we were entering into someone else’s territory, to be frank, and questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask”. They were ways for Geim and his team to acquire the advantage of the non-expert – the deliberate amateur.
Out of the two dozen or so Friday Night Experiments, three were hits, a success rate of 12.5%. The flying frog was the first. The second was the creation of “gecko tape”, a biomimetic adhesive that mimics the clinging ability of the gecko’s hairy feet. The third hit was the isolation of graphene, which they found with the help of pencil lead and Scotch tape. He and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics for its discovery.
The graphene discovery happened when some of the researchers were using tunnelling microscopy and cleaning the dust with Scotch tape. Another researcher, meanwhile, was attempting to produce the thinnest possible slice from a piece of graphite.
Geim noticed the dust on the tape. For no particular reason, he dabbed some more and found it was forming a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in two-dimensional hexagons which he called graphene. It’s the thinnest material in the world as well as one of the strongest and hardest.
It confounded scientists at the time who thought it was impossible to have a 2D lattice like that due to thermal fluctuations which would cause such a structure to fall apart. However, Geim and Novoselov were able to prove them wrong.
It was a major discovery. Graphene has many unique properties: it’s 200 times stronger than steel but lighter than aluminium; transparency is 98% but it’s impervious to helium, the most permeating gas; and graphene is the best electrical conductor at room temperature.
The team submitted a paper summarising their findings to the august magazine Nature. The journal rejected it twice. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Geim noted that one referee said it did “not constitute a sufficient scientific advance”.
He is by nature a scientific explorer. “Many people choose a subject for their PhD and then continue the same subject until they retire. I despise this approach. I have changed my subject five times before I got my first tenured position and that helped me to learn different subjects. When one dares to try, rewards are not guaranteed but at least it is an adventure.”
Playfulness, he says, lets us withstand enormous uncertainty. It’s all about what he calls the beginner’s mind, “the useful wonder of the amateur”. But frivolous research techniques are something that serious science doesn’t easily condone. It takes an inordinate amount of courage to cultivate the method of the deliberate amateur as a strategy.
“I went to conferences as a beginner with having a couple of already prestigious papers, being an associate professor. People looked at me [and said], ‘Who is this materials postdoc? What is he doing?’ … It’s not secure. You’re moving in the unknown waters which are not only scientifically unknown but psychologically. I suppose this is where play comes in.”
Being the first and only scientist to win both the Nobel Prize and Ig Nobel Prize, Andre Geim is testimony to the ingenuity and creativity of a playful mind. DM/ML
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