How One Irreverent Physicist Went From Levitating Frogs to Winning the Nobel Prize

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May 21 2014 9:05 AM

The Deliberate Amateur

How outlandish experimentation and “grazing shallow” led to a Nobel Prize win.

(Continued from Page 1)

The graphene FNE began when Geim asked Da Jiang, a doctoral student from China, to polish a piece of graphite an inch across and a few millimeters thick down to 10 microns using a specialized machine. Partly due to a language barrier, Jiang polished the graphite down to dust, but not the ultimate thinness Geim wanted.

Helpfully, the Geim lab was also observing graphite using scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). The experimenters would clean the samples beforehand using Scotch tape, which they would then discard. “We took it out of the trash and just used it,” Novoselov said. The flakes of graphite on the tape from the waste bin were finer and thinner than what Jiang had found using the fancy machine. They weren’t one layer thick—that achievement came by ripping them some more with Scotch tape.

They swapped the adhesive for Japanese Nitto tape, “probably because the whole process is so simple and cheap we wanted to fancy it up a little and use this blue tape,” Geim said. Yet “the method is called the ‘Scotch tape technique.’ I fought against this name, but lost.”

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The team submitted a paper summarizing their findings to Nature. The journal rejected it twice—which is such a common fate for historically path-breaking ideas that it could signal an unintended compliment. One referee said it did “not constitute a sufficient scientific advance,” Geim later said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

                                                      

* * *

The wisdom of the deliberate amateur is an old idea for artists, seen in the freedom that comes in a late style or in the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind.” “Experience ... is what gets you through the door. But experience also closes the door,” choreographer Twyla Tharp once said. “You tend to rely on that memory and stick with what has worked before. You don’t try anything anew.” Without off-road exploration, we have little way of figuring it out.

The amateur’s “useful wonder” is what the expert may not realize she has left behind. It helps us get around what psychologists call the Einstellung effect, or the cost of success: the bias that creeps in without our notice and can block us from seeing how to do things in different ways.

The term amateur is now pejorative: to be a dabbler, fancier, or hobbyist—all conceptual flirts. Yet centuries ago, the word amateur wasn’t meant to disparage. It described a person undertaking an activity for sheer pleasure, not solely pursuing a goal for the sake of their profession. The French amateur is from the Latin amator—a lover, a devotee, a person who adores a particular endeavor.

Few cultivate this method of the deliberate amateur as a strategy. This kind of agility takes an inordinate amount of courage, Geim said. “I went to those 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,” he continued, that is where “play comes in.” Playfulness lets us withstand enormous uncertainty: The deliberate amateur knows no other way. When a musician says that someone can play, it means they are skilled, responsive, and nimble; the person knows how to harmonize or offer dissonance when it’s right. Yet outside of the creative process, play is a term that can hurt the concept it names.

A constellation of voices has begun to argue for the importance of permitting an adventurous approach into the process of innovative, serious work. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), for example, considers play so critical for its engineers’ performance that it asks applicants about their hobbies as children. Google caused waves when it was perceived to be pulling back on its famous “20 percent projects,” its tradition of allowing employees to spend one-fifth of their time on their own experiments.

In the context of scientific research, however, play may never be the right word, at least not publicly. Geim would prefer to call it “adventure” or “curiosity-driven research.” His Nobel Prize lecture was titled a “Random Walk to Graphene.”

Trammeled walkways that emerge on the grass and ground are called “desire lines”; in the woods and in cities, these footpaths often offer more efficient ways to get around than what urban planners have designed with paved streets. In Finland, urban planners often head to parks after snowfall to view how pedestrians would navigate if they followed their own desire. This is the kind of adventurous search that Geim exemplifies, seeking out roads that, though hidden, are found on open ground.

The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Sarah Lewis is a Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University, working on a book on Frederick Douglass, the Circassian beauties, and the construction of whiteness.

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