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Andre Geim – The Maverick in Science

Young scientists should be adventurous in their experiments and try new things, even if they risk being ridiculed by their peers.

That is the advice that Nobel laureate Andre Geim would give to researchers just starting on their scientific careers.

“Life can never be interesting if you follow a routine,” said the 58-year-old, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 along with his colleague Sir Konstantin Novoselov for their groundbreaking work on a material called graphene.

One of the speakers at the upcoming Global Young Scientists Summit 2017, Sir Andre – he was knighted in the Netherlands in 2010 and in Britain in 2012 – has charted an unconventional path in science himself.

Born in Russia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, he traveled to Britain’s Nottingham University for a six-month visiting fellowship when he was 32 years old.

Captivated by the rapid pace of research at the university, he decided to look for opportunities in the West, moving from Nottingham to Copenhagen to Bath and back to Nottingham again in the next four years.

“It was a turning point in my life,” he said of his decision to leave the Soviet Union. “As a young man, I arrived at Heathrow Airport in London with literally just £1 in my pocket and no valuables back in the country of my birth.

“At the age of 32, I restarted my career with absolutely nothing except for a good education.”

Friday night experiments

That eagerness to blaze new trails has become a hallmark of his professional life.

As an associate professor at the Netherlands’ Radboud University Nijmegen in the mid-1990s, he began to conduct experiments outside of his field of expertise in his free time. These became known as his ‘Friday night experiments’.

Intrigued by claims that putting a small magnet around a hot water pipe would prevent the formation of scales inside the pipe, for instance, he began to test how magnetic fields might change the properties of water.

Pouring water directly onto his laboratory’s electromagnet when it was switched to its maximum power, he was astonished to discover that the water became trapped and suspended in the magnet’s vertical bore instead of spilling all over the floor.

He quickly realized that it was diamagnetism – the property of materials to oppose magnetic fields – that was responsible for the water’s levitation. This property is ever-present in almost everything and everyone, and not feeble, contrary to popular belief.

To make the latter point, he tried to levitate other items, including a frog. The image of the levitating frog made it into many science textbooks as a symbol of the power of diamagnetism, and earned Sir Andre an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000. The prize is given to unusual research, and as a parody of the Nobel Prize.

“I loved the experiment and I’m actually very proud of winning the Ig Nobel. I was given a chance to decline the prize, and nobody would know. But I am keen on goodhearted jokes even when on the receiving end.” he said.

“The perception of magnetism has changed with this one frog.”

Graphene, the wonder material

Even his ground-breaking discovery of graphene was the result of his exploratory detours.

Graphene, made up of a single layer of carbon atoms, is the world’s thinnest known material but is also hundreds of times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, flexible and a fantastic conductor of heat and electricity to boot.

It could be used to make water filters and solar panels more efficient, superfast computer chips, quantum dots to deliver medical drugs more effectively and ultra-thin and flexible electronics, such as smartphones and screens that can be rolled up.

After Sir Andre joined the University of Manchester in Britain in 2001, he continued his extracurricular research projects, sometimes roping in his colleagues and undergraduate and post-graduate students.

Sir Andre and his research partners discovered graphene when they were trying to uncover the electrical properties of graphite, another form of carbon.

While trying to make the thin films of graphite necessary for their research, they realised that they could simply use Scotch tape to peel flakes from a graphite crystal. By using the sticky tape repeatedly, they could even pare the flakes down to the thinness of a single atom.

While their use of Scotch tape has become a scientific legend, their more important discoveries came afterwards, when they probed the material’s properties and uncovered, among other things, its electrical properties.

Since their findings were published in the Science journal in 2004, graphene has been the subject of intense and wide-ranging research. Between 2005 and 2015, more than 100,000 papers and 25,000 patents related to graphene were filed worldwide.

Even now, new uses for the material are being discovered. For example, Sir Andre, his wife Irina, who is also a scientist, and other researchers co-authored papers published in 2016 that showed that water can flow with little friction between graphene sheets and tiny balloons made from graphene can withstand enormous pressure.

This could make them useful for studying how molecules react under extreme pressure.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Sir Andre has also been studying other two-dimensional materials. While none of these have shown the same potential as graphene, they could still be useful, he noted.

“Graphene is not a panacea. If it is not useful for a certain task, we still have this huge arsenal of other two-dimensional materials to exploit. I believe these are becoming part of our toolbox,” he said.

In the meantime, he continues to teach and conduct research at the University of Manchester, where he is the Regius Professor and Royal Society Research Professor.

“There are always opportunities to try new things, in every walk of life,” he said. “Research is not an exception. Work is a big part of everyone’s life, and one should try to make life full and interesting.”

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