When Andre Geim discovered graphene, he went from winning the Ig Nobel prize to the Nobel. Giles Whittell meets the quirky Russian physicist who may be the new James Watt
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2014
A year before the fall of the Soviet Union, in December 1990, a young Russian physicist arrived at Nottingham station with very little money and very poor English. He had a burly look, a wide grin and “an interesting but not world-shaking piece of work” to his name on thin-film superconductors. This was the assessment of Peter Main, a professor at the University of Nottingham who met him at the station. Freed from the Soviet Union by glasnost, Main’s visitor was determined to build a career in Europe and determined to make an impression. He was on a six-month fellowship, and for most of those six months he worked hundred-hour weeks. He tried to make his fellow researchers laugh, though not with much success. Main remembers that he caused an important physics-department computer to crash, and that “after about two weeks I was the only person left who was prepared to work with him”.
Looking back, Professor Sir Andre Geim wondered if it was his accent that annoyed his new colleagues. It is still strong, with the guttural “r” that in Russia often betrays ethnic German roots, but Main believes what rubbed people up the wrong way was simpler and deeper—Geim’s urgent, conspicuous need to prove himself. “He had some trouble fitting in in a social way,” Main says, “which is interesting because later on he became the social centre of life in his department.”
The department where Geim has since come to roost, at the University of Manchester, specialises in a field of science that was not fashionable even ten years ago but is now a magnet for many of the best brains on the planet. The Condensed Matter Physics Group occupies a couple of floors of a functional block two miles east of Old Trafford. There Geim’s team study the extraordinary properties of two-dimensional materials that no one knew existed until he revealed them to the world.
His humour goes over better along the CMPG’s corridors than it did in Nottingham. Or at least he takes great pleasure in, say, throwing together a pair of Indian and Pakistani post-docs and calling them both “Kashmirians”. He gets away with it because it’s funny, and perhaps because of the status he has acquired in his adoptive country. Four years ago he became an unusually young winner of the Nobel physics prize. (He was 52, but youth is relative in the intellectual stratosphere. He reckons he’s one of 30 living Nobel winners not to have dementia.) He has since been adopted as a hero of Russian science by members of President Putin’s ruling elite and as the incarnation of Britain’s 21st-century knowledge economy by a grateful coalition government. Informally, he has been elevated to the role of public intellectual, which is more popular in France than Britain and probably more perilous in Britain than France. Not that he minds the risk. “Political correctness is not one of my vices,” he growls. “I’m accepting that my role in society is to be a disturbance in the smooth flow.”
In the biographies that Geim’s admirers hope to read about him he will be more than a mere scientist. He will be the founder of a new economy. Like James Watt 230 years ago, he will be the man behind the breakthrough that changed everything. Thanks to Geim, this vision holds, the economy will be comprehensively rebuilt over the next several decades to incorporate the miraculous strength, lightness, flexibility and electrical conductivity of graphene, the one-atom-thick carbon sheeting that he and a quick-thinking student were the first to get between their tweezers and under a microscope.
Graphene, for now, is Geim’s life’s work. It is what he is known for. It is the reason for a sleek new £61m research centre being built near his office, for hundreds of research groups and thousands of patents and patent applications. Apple is experimenting with graphene for heat-sinks for its batteries, Saab for de-icing, Lockheed for desalination. Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic have it in their Head tennis racquets. Geim himself has proposed using large volumes of graphene flakes to stop radioactive coolant seeping from the doomed Fukushima reactors. The incentives for graphene commercialisation are limitless in the strict sense that there is no limit to what it might be worth, although £30 billion a year is one guess. The pressure on British scientists to seize the opportunity has been intense, and Geim has not been immune.
When I first met him two years ago he said the £50m the British government had pledged for graphene research was “not even competitive” with sums earmarked in Singapore and South Korea. Since then some of the fever has abated. Geim is less worried about brute investment and more optimistic about the quality of Britain’s graphene start-ups. For his own part he is trying to move on. He knows graphene is the great applied-science project of the age but does not want it to define him. He knows the National Graphene Institute should be a boon to Manchester, but is leaving others to run it. He is prowling the frontiers of two-dimensional crystallography to see where they might lead to whole new fields of discovery. He is scanning the molecular horizon for ways to achieve room-temperature superconductivity, for example (“would be nice” but for now looks “overly optimistic”), and there are those who have begun to murmur that if he can only find more time to indulge his maverick streak, he could even put his first Nobel behind him by winning a second.