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.

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics Andre Geim.
Andre Geim's work on graphene came out of an unfunded side experiment.

Photo by Jonathan Nackstrang/AFP/Getty Images

The following is adapted from Lewis’ The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, published by Simon & Schuster.

“It says, ‘No entrance,’ but you just enter,” physicist Andre Geim told me about the graphite mines in the mountains where he often hikes. His comment embodied the insouciance behind his Nobel Prize–winning physics experiment and his habit of experimenting deliberately outside of his area of expertise.

Geim, a Russian-born Dutch and British citizen and a professor at the University of Manchester, and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their experiments involving the single-atom-thick material called graphene—the thinnest, strongest, most conductive material in existence. It is predicted to replace silicon and transform the electronics industry as we know it.

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Compounding the honor of winning the Nobel is that Geim is the only scientist to date to win both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel, the award given to scientists for experiments so outlandish that they “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Ig Nobel–winning experiments have included an award in chemistry for a wasabi-made alarm clock designed to rouse a sleeping person in an emergency and a peace prize “for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.” The preeminent journal Nature has called the Ig Nobel announcements, organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, “arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar.”

Geim won the Ig Nobel in Physics in 2000 for levitating a live frog with magnets. “In my experience, if people don’t have a sense of humor, they are usually not very good scientists either,” he said. The image of the flying frog first made the rounds after its publication in the April 1997 issue of Physics World, though many assumed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. Most thought that water’s magnetism, billions of times weaker than iron, was not strong enough to counter gravity; the demonstration showed its true force.

Geim became curious about magnetism when he didn’t have the equipment to continue his experiments while working at Radboud University Nijmegen’s High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands. So one Friday evening he set the electromagnet to maximum power, then poured water straight into the expensive machine. He still can’t remember why he “behaved so unprofessionally,’” but he was able to see how descending water “got stuck” within the vertical bore. Balls of water started floating. They were levitating. He had discovered that a seemingly “feeble magnetic response of water” could act against Earth’s gravitational force.

A live frog levitates.
A live frog levitates inside the vertical bore of a Bitter solenoid in a magnetic field at the Nijmegen High Field Magnet Laboratory.

Photo courtesy Lijnis Nelemans/High Field Magnet Laboratory/Radboud University Nijmegen

When Geim tells this story, he’s not making a self-deprecating aside about a humble detour. He’s talking about part of the direct route he and his colleagues took to isolate graphene itself.

What seemed like a late-night lark evolved into what Geim calls the “Friday Night Experiments.” On these occasions, Geim’s lab works 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 Geim’s career, he has devoted 10 percent of his lab time to this kind of research.

The Friday Night Experiments (FNEs) are often so outlandish that they try to limit how long someone works on them—usually just a few months, so as not to hurt the careers of the lab’s postdoctoral fellows, undergraduates, or graduate students. Geim’s perspective is that it’s “better to be wrong than be boring.” But this means that the FNEs are, unsurprisingly, unfunded—due to their nature, they have to be. They are times when “we’re entering into someone else’s territory, to be frank, and questioning things people who work in that area never bother to ask,” Geim said. In other words, these are ways for Geim and his team to acquire the advantage of the nonexpert—the deliberate amateur.

Out of the two dozen or so attempted Friday Night Experiments, three have been hits, a success rate of 12.5 percent. The flying frog was the first. The second was the creation of “gecko tape,” an adhesive that mimics the clinging ability of the gecko’s hairy feet. The third FNE hit was the Nobel Prize–winning isolation of graphene.

“The biggest adventure is to move into an area in which you are not an expert,” Geim said. “Sometimes I joke that I am not interested in doing re-search, only search.” His overall career philosophy is to “graze shallow”: Do work in a new field for a few years and then get out.

Geim and Novoselov found graphene hiding out in the graphite from an ordinary pencil. They isolated it with a tool that seemed even more rudimentary—a piece of Scotch tape. The physicists had never worked with carbon before. Their team worked long hours to familiarize themselves with the literature, although they were careful not to read so much as to read themselves right out of their own ideas.

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