At a Hay Festival event sponsored by the Royal Society, Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield interviewed Andre Geim, the Nobel prize winner best known for his work on graphene, the subject of an exhibition that will open next year at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester.
He created graphene, the first two dimensional object on the planet. He levitated frogs. And his pet hamster too. He created tape that mimics the adhesive properties of Gecko feet. But what makes the Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim one of the most creative figures in physics?
A revealing glimpse of how his mind makes adventurous leaps in supposedly well-trodden areas of research emerged when I interviewed the Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor at Manchester University, who is best known for his research on the wonder material graphene, along with his deadpan wit and candour.
Born in Sochi and raised in Soviet-era Russia, Geim does not pinpoint his success to being inspired by a particular teacher or childhood experience but being gifted in mathematics and physics and stimulated by a peripatetic existence, aided by the end of the Cold War and a basic hunger for new experiences.
He is serious about play, enjoying stressful hikes across Borneo, and an eventful trip to the Grand Canyon, where he endured both pneumonia and a rattlesnake bite. Equally, he is playful about the serious business of work. ‘I measure life not in years but in experiences.’
Our Hay event was entitled ‘Random Walk to Graphene,’ in honour of his Nobel lecture on a ‘random walk to Stockholm’, a nod to the mathematical term used to describe a path that consists of a succession of random steps. Because his career trajectory has been a little random, he feels that he has learned something new at every step.
This is a far cry from the traditional blinkered way of doing science, which he encountered first-hand when he conducted the equivalent of a doctorate at the Institute of Solid State Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Chernogolovka.
A slide from his Nobel lecture shows his 1987 thesis citation was entitled: “Investigation of mechanisms of transport relaxation in metals by a helicon resonance method” (He told the Hay audience: ‘I really have forgotten what is was all about.’)
Geim said that many of the six or seven million people worldwide who do professional research are trapped in a style of science that he likens to ‘a railway from your scientific cradle to scientific coffin’, one which is ‘absolutely straight’ and where diversions are not allowed.
In the eighties, ‘I did two or three papers which were cited once or twice by my supervisor, no one else,’ he said. ‘That was the experience of my PhD.’ Bottom line, never torture students with what he calls ‘zombie projects.’
Wind forward to Radboud University Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands where he had ended up, attracted by the greater opportunities and freedom in the West: the Royal Society had sponsored a visit to the University of Nottingham during which he achieved more in his first six months than in the previous ‘six years of boredom.’
One Friday in Nijmegen, two decades of curiosity about the phenomenon of diamagnetism got the better of him. He poured a bottle of water into one of the lab’s powerful electromagnets, some 50 times stronger than a fridge magnet. It was in the evening, when the electricity was cheaper. Lo and behold droplets of water started floating in the powerful magnetic field. ‘It is a ridiculous experiment,’ he conceded. ‘But nobody had come with the same stupid idea.’
His colleagues suggested he now try beer. Instead, his wife and fellow physicist Irina Grigorieva, who accompanied him and their daughter to Hay, ’came up with a brilliant idea.’ He should try a frog too, just to underline to scientific sceptics as much as the layperson how everything is diamagnetic.
The Geim family pet hamster Tisha was quickly levitated. Not only did he live to squeak the tale for another three years, he even co-authored a paper with Geim in the journal Physical B to, as Geim puts it, ‘acknowledge his personal contribution.’ Geim wanted to ensure his work had real impact rather than swell the ranks of uncited papers.
The rest is history and he won the ‘Ig Nobel prize’ for innovations that make people ‘laugh, then think.’ But ‘behind every joke there is something very serious.’ He shared the Ig Nobel Prize with Sir Michael Berry of the University of Bristol, who had worked with Geim on the theory of levitation. Even today, scientists come up to Geim at conferences and say. ‘I have no idea about graphene’ and then talk in delight about his levitating frog.
Geim has since enshrined the idea of the Friday Night Experiment in his way of working. His playfulness and commitment to scientific adventure (‘search, not re-search’) was what attracted Kostya Novoselov to Geim’s laboratory in Holland.
And it was what would take them both on a random walk to the Nobel prize, after a wrong first step by Geim’s first PhD student when he moved to the University of Manchester. Da Jiang had arrived from China with poor English and in 2002 Geim gave him a simple project: take a piece of graphite, the stuff of pencils, albeit a chunk worth around £300, and isolate the thinnest sliver he could.
Geim wanted to study a two-dimensional sheet of carbon atoms that had long been posited by theorists, and was predicted to have fascinating electronic properties, but had never been seen. This Friday Night Experiment was a step in the wrong direction: Da Jiang used a specialised machine to grind the piece of graphene down to a little piece. ‘It was not thin enough’ and Geim asked him to try again. Da Jiang requested another piece of graphite and, given he had reduced the last to dust, ‘You can imagine how excited I was’.
Then Geim’s Ukrainian postdoc Oleg Shklyarevskii took an interest and had an idea: physicists used Scotch tape to clean graphite, which is commonly studied in laboratories. ‘What those guys did not realise,’ explained Geim, ‘was that throwing away the Scotch tape they were throwing away the Nobel Prize as well.’
After rummaging in the bin, pieces of tape emerged coated with ultrathin graphite: not atomic thickness but transparent, which raised the hopes of Geim that graphene could be made. ‘I knew that if it is transparent it must be very, very thin. From the very first moment I knew that we could get with this technique something that has never been studied before.’
Here Novoselov re-enters the story and lo and behold after a year to 18 months, they isolated a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. The flat, parallel sheets of carbon atoms in the graphite of pencil lead could indeed be peeled apart to yield a single atomic layer. (Geim hates calling this the ‘Scotch tape technique,’ which is ‘plebeian.’)
Geim’s random, playful leaps across physics are not as effortless as they sound: it takes careful background research to make sense of what many others have done before, do something different, and to describe a novel leap in familiar terms that peers can understand. This exercise in due diligence is not helped by the vast amounts of chaff in the scientific literature: he points out that of the 100,000 or so research papers each year (excluding those from China), half are never cited.
Their first paper about the isolation of graphene was rejected when it was sent to Nature. Although one referee remarked ‘this paper does not represent a scientific advance,’ Geim is sanguine about the conservatism of science. Eventually it was accepted and published in the journal Science in 2004.
It was astounding that heat energy (‘Brownian motion’) did not shake graphene’s gossamer atomic lattice apart, a hint of its extraordinary properties – miraculous strength, lightness, flexibility – and conductivity too. This material was 100 times stronger than steel and 100 times more conductive than copper, promising a wealth of applications, from supercapacitors and composites to lighting and superfast electronics.
By 2010, the first paper by Novoselov and Geim was cited more than 3,000 times. That same year, they shared the Nobel Prize, though Geim says that, in reality, ‘six or seven people’ were behind the breakthrough.
And how did he feel when the call from the Nobel committee came? ‘People were expecting me to win the prize for two or three years before,’ he said. ‘In a sense I was mentally prepared that there would be a call.’ But he messed up the actual timing and did not realise that it would be that particular Monday when the prize was announced. Still, when a female voice with a Swedish accent materialised on his phone to say she had something very important to tell him,’ he immediately replied: “Are you going to tell me that I won the Nobel prize?”
‘Nothing changed that day. I went to work. I had a few drinks. Otherwise, nothing special. ’There were plenty of calls from journalists but ‘it was not very interesting. Journalism is not my favourite profession. Sorry, Roger…they write quicker than they think.’
Today Geim maintains a small, close-knit team of two postdocs and two or three students. He believes in the power of ‘self-organisation’, quickly losing interest in students who do not pass muster. He wants to do science, not admin: ‘I am in the lab several times a day.’ He has resisted the temptation to build an empire.
Even though his work has spawned a £61 million National Graphene Institute in Manchester, ‘a good facility’ he is ambivalent about the relatively small scale of the effort compared with rival nations, the sluggishness of the UK response to the race to commercialise graphene, and how the money was spent on the building rather than research (architects, along with politicians, journalists and students attract his ire). ‘It is money put into the British building industry rather than science.’
He has met Chancellor George Osborne a couple of times but quickly lost interest. ‘I am not an industrialist or property developer…my strength is probably being a little bit unconventional…I am not interested in political games.’
Graphene is now ‘more or less done’, he said. His latest research is backed mostly by European Union funding, which he says is more focused on blue sky than immediate returns. Geim has now moved on to creating novel designer materials by assembling the emerging family of two dimensional ‘brothers and sisters of graphene’, including hexagonal boron nitride, fluorographene and so on, in a Lego-like fashion. His hope is that these metamaterials will have extraordinary new properties for instance for quantum computers and much more. The world is entering the era of what he calls ‘Graphene 3.0’.
Graphene pencil drawing credit: Chalmers University of Technology.