Transcript from an interview with the 2010 physics laureates


Konstantin Novoselov (right) and Andre Geim (left) during their interview with

Copyright © Nobel Media AB 2010 Photo: Niclas Enberg

Interview with 2010 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, 6 December 2010. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editorial Director of Nobel Media.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, welcome to the Nobel Week in Stockholm. We are right in the beginning of it but how are you finding it so far?

Konstantin Novoselov: I think we have been taken care about us quite nicely. We feel very welcome.

Andre Geim: Very busy, very busy.

I think it gets busier as it goes on. I want to start by discussing the subject of play. People often view science as a very serious exploit but it’s really quite playful and you in particular keep play at the forefront of your research activities. Can you tell me how play figures in your research?

Konstantin Novoselov: I came to do my PhD with Andre in 1999 and at first for me it was just an opportunity to work in some other lab, but I was so fascinated with the style of work that Andre imposed on the lab that I worked with him in the same lab since then. And it is really important that you Andre impose the style which promote the freedom of mind, you are just allowed to do whatever you want as long as it’s not boring, and for me I’m not sure if, even if we are not doing science in the eyes of other people, it’s nice, it’s enjoyable and that’s what I like.

I suppose when children start off being curious about the world and they do their first experiments, that’s just play, they are just playing around, but somehow most people lose that ability to fulfil their curiosity through play.

Andre Geim: I think saying that it is a play is a little of an exaggeration, but I will put it in a slightly different manner of speech. Essentially science is not a hundred-meter race – you have to do marathon for 40-50 years of your life and to keep you active and keep you running you have to keep some interest in your research. If you are doing something like your PhD, your supervisor gives you a project and then from scientific cradle to scientific coffin you go just along the straight railway line. That’s boring, so it doesn’t keep you involved, doesn’t keep you interested, so during this work, you try to make it more fun, more interest, try to new direction, step, laugh, step, try, no problem at all.

It’s also a good way of engaging the public in what you are doing. A prime example was your, was the work for which you were awarded with the Ig Nobel Prize, this levitating of frog, it wasn’t a joke it was a serious demonstration, but it got people’s attention.

Andre Geim: Essentially, you are doing serious science and it probably was one of the first public engagement experiment so, yeah, we found that the magnitude which was perceived as extremely feeble phenomenon, turned out to be not as feeble as it was perceived, so colleagues who dealt routinely with high magnetic fields, similar to myself, we had no idea that fields are already so strong that to make things levitate. When we have found out that, only few years ago, people has done similar research and public scientific, you know, paper in a journal in Asia which doesn’t contain any images. There was a task to just, put an emphasis and we tried different images, and nothing worked until my wife and some other colleagues suggested to levitate a frog and this caused this wow-effect. Now, okay, you can smile and perceive this as a little bit quirky experiment but when I go for conferences quite often I’m stopped, they say, No I know you, forget about graphene, you have seen the images of your levitating frog in my lectures, either magnitude or condensed metaphysics, and this immediately attracts, the image of the flying frog immediately attract attention of students. They want to know how this is possible so, it’s educational impact which all these experiments was quite important.

We touch before, in the telephone interview immediately after the announcement of the prize, on the courage it took to accept the Ig Nobel Prize. It brands you in a particular way, I suppose.

Andre Geim: Yeah, unlike Nobel Prize, I had a couple of weeks to mole it all down. I spoke with my colleagues and saying What do you think? and they said No way and so on, it’s dangerous, you’ll spoil your carrier and probably at that time I didn’t have enough courage to accept it on my own so, I ask my colleague, Mike Berry to share this with me. So, he often complains that I used him as a fig leaf for whatever to this one, so, yeah, it’s sort of, everyone can take jokes about their colleagues – we love to make jokes about the colleagues so, take jokes about yourself it’s requires a little bit of courage.

I think I read somewhere that a pastor wrote to you, asking to be levitated in front of a congregation, subsequent to that.

Andre Geim: We still don’t know whether it was a hokes or real, indeed, in case that was a weird letter apparently from some Georgine, south west of England, asking very strange questions, so, I’m going to give you a million pounds for the machine but first please tell me whether this machine can be concealed beneath the floor and whether it’s a very loud noise which can be heard if it’s okay, if it is humble, then we can use organ in order to fly over, so you can imagine what the application of this experiment would be.

Konstantin Novoselov: But I guess the guys were really serious about that, they even sent five pounds note as a deposit for the million pounds. Investments.

You have it framed somewhere maybe?

Konstantin Novoselov: Yes, it is in the Nijmegen somewhere

Andre Geim: It’s on website, in Nijmegen website.

Maybe the word “play” is then too dramatic, but it was this kind of adventurous approach to doing your science that led you to the experiments where you …

Andre Geim: A bit of adventurous is a better word than a little bit of play.

Konstantin Novoselov: Basically, coming back to this word” courage” which you mentioned. Just to be strong enough to ask the questions which sounds obvious but don’t have an obvious answer and people always, quite often just ignore them because they sound so obvious and they just assume that the answer is known, but quite often, it’s the same with the levitation or what is the thinnest possible material, if it’s possible or not. We just need to be bold enough to pose those questions again and again.

So, with the isolation of graphene which was done in this beautifully simple way just with sticky tape on graphite we are told. Was that the end of a long series of attempts to isolate graphene where this was just the last thing that one might try?

Andre Geim: No, it was the beginning of a long series of serious experiments. Yeah so, it was very first try which turned out working and then it was okay a few years to hard work to clear it up.

Konstantin Novoselov: Andre is a little bit modest, in fact it was his idea first to create the metallic transistor and we thought about several possible ways and it was one of the possible ways and it did work. It was, although it sounds playful, it was quite a serious series and it ended up nicely.

Andre Geim: It’s probably doesn’t give the sounds okay what’s adventure and courage and so on, probably. What is important is, that when you are working within your specific direction you know all minor details of the area, you are aware about or control etcetera. The biggest adventure in doing different experiments, is to move into area where you are not an expert. It requires a lot of work to accumulate additional knowledge, read hundreds and hundreds of different papers and be courageous enough to enter in the area where you have not been before so, for me for example, in mid-nineties, I switched subject from semi-conductor physics to superconductivity. I went to those conferences as a beginner with having a couple of already prestigious papers being an associate professor and people looked at me and something like that, who is this mature post-doc, what his teaching with us. Because I came from a completely different community. It requires a lot of work and this sort of moving away, it’s not secure. You are moving in the unknown waters which is not only scientifically unknown but in terms of psychology, it’s unknown community. This requires a bit of adventure.

Konstantin Novoselov: It’s a great pleasure as well, if you are young like a student again because you were for a very short period of time, you got to learn so much that people will learn over decades and that’s a great pleasure.

And this must be an important point, you don’t have the baggage of knowing what is possible and impossible in your field you are just fresh to everything.

Konstantin Novoselov: You are free from many of the prejudices and that’s indeed true. It helps.

It does sound as if doing this experiment with sticky tape makes you … you were free from prejudice when you were doing it because you … it’s sounds like so ridiculously simple that one wouldn’t try it.

Konstantin Novoselov: We are of course full of prejudices which we got to from our university years and we know what is possible, what is not possible, but you are also allowed to be a little bit critical about those knowledge and you embrace yourself that was the most fundamental laws only and not on the work of your colleagues which might be right, might be wrong then, yes, you have much more freedom of movements and you allow yourself into much more, probably simple, but also courageous experiments.

Andre Geim: Of course this prize says that there are plenty of courageous scientists when you entering into another area, where they come from another area and you apply them, let’s say into this supplinary turn to another area, so it just causes unusually facts, so you bring that baggage of different prejudices, to a new area. This helps.

In this case it seems to be a successful melding. Let’s talk about graphene a little bit. It’s a single atomic carbon in a hexagonal lattice just one atom thick and its forming exists in this single atom sheets. It’s supposed to be the strongest material on earth is that correct?

Konstantin Novoselov: Well, let’s start from the beginning. Over the last seven years, people like to talk about how strong it is and how conductive it is and how probably useful it’s going to be for the electronic industry, but for me it’s just the very existence of it something which is only one atom thick can exist on millimetre or even inch size and be so perfect and it’s practically resolve any defect that you can actually pick it up and hand it in your fingers put it back and still it will work as a perfect transist. Just the very existence of this material is still very fascinating for me and then in addition to it, all the other properties that can come on top is the most, is the strongest material known to us, it’s probably the most conductive and we are so lucky with finding so many unusual electronic properties in it, on which we really specialize.

Does it also exist as double and triple and quadruple as which don’t have the same properties or does it?

Konstantin Novoselov: So it probably again, their own question, does it exist because … It does exist in double layer, but it is a completely new material again. Its properties, the properties of one layer graphene, are absolutely different from mono layer, or from graphite, and it’s a … So in this sense, we are only in the beginning of the pass, we’ve barely touched the properties of graphene and practically know nothing about bilayer graphene, triple layer it still years ahead of us.

Lovely, it’s great depth there to discover then. And it acts as a laboratory as well as a material which can be applied, and I understand you can do some very fundamental physics using graphene. So, it holds potential both for the expiration of quantum physics and for applications such as touch screens and alike. Are you interested in the entire spectrum of those things or do you tend towards one or other end of the spectrum?

Konstantin Novoselov: Whe’re generally interested in what is interesting whether it is, if it is applications which are interesting at this particular moment for us, then we do some particular part of the applications. Mostly, it just happened that physics is so fascinating in this material indeed as you said, electrons behave so specially in this material, they mimic relativistic particles, so you can produce experiments which were not possible with real elementary particles in the real world, and it allows so much freedom and so many different types of experiments that honestly, one can be lost. Myself and Andre, we often complained that these Friday evening experiments, which you were mentioning, are no longer active but in fact, when you think about this material it’s not true, we broaden the spectrum of our work in the lab so dramatically we now study, not only transfer properties that we are used to do, we also study mechanical properties and optical properties and chemistry and the interplay between those. That’s the overall, the spectrum of the experiments is probably even wilder than from the levitating frog to superconductivity.

So the Friday evening experiment which use to be the time where you set aside for doing particularly adventurous things has now become the sort of general way of working in the lab.

Konstantin Novoselov: Yes.

Is it difficult to choose what experiment to do, given all these possibilities?

Andre Geim: Well, circumstances force us to move in one area or another area, so you have a limited freedom of choice. Circumstances sometimes dictate, just for simple reasons, one area even was incorrect. /- – -/ research becomes so crowded, another area is still not exploited, you have certain possibilities with your experimental facilities, so, it dictates what you can chose and within this already limited choice of options you have to think what to do and then you poke in the right direction similar to this Friday night experiments. If the poke is unsuccessful after few days, few weeks, so even a few months, I usually say, let’s cut losses like on a stock market and do something else within this area. So, it’s always hard but at the same time we are forced into.

There must be a big difference between poking around with different experiments in an area that’s very sparsely populated as graphene research was when you first entered it and now when it’s a massive field of its own.

Andre Geim: Yes, we all the time we are trying to run away from the crowd, because, okey, electronic properties is a very competitive area so we moved into optical properties. Optical properties now very crowded, we were lucky to publish the first paper on optical properties and then we moved to chemistry. And I guess chemistry will get very populated until, already becomes populated now. So, now where do we move next, so it’s always the question.

So is it that you like to be first in an area, you like to seed in an area?

Andre Geim: First is a waste when to many people working in the same area, secondly, possibilities are wider when you are in a new area and you are not afraid of being scooped because when you are in some area you have this feeling that you have to rush. When you are in some other area you can exploit in a better way and think about what you have found rather than try to publish in front of other people, so that’s much better. Feels much better.

Konstantin Novoselov: As in this sense, we were so lucky with our first paper on graphene, we had this privilege of working on it for more than a year. Our days it’s so competitive, we have to work much faster, and publish results within half a year probably.

It’s interesting, people often talk about science is this great collaborative enterprise where there’s the enjoy partly is the give and take between all the participants in a particular research field and conferences and learning from each other and it’s a balance between that pleasure and having more space to do your thing in a less crowded field. So how does that work for you? How much of the collaborative enterprise do you enjoy?

Konstantin Novoselov: It is indeed a very fine balance and I’m still proud that Andre made this, I’m proud, that Andre made this decision when the very first paper was coming out that we didn’t try to patent this method or graphene or anything, we just invited as many people from all over the world with the task to joining us in this situation. People used this opportunity which increased this field dramatically and since then we enjoyed our collaboration and I hope that was the moment we set up the mood in the community because the community is incredibly friendly. We have so many very good collaborators, tough collaborators, but they are really fair collaborators and many of them are going to be here this week.

I wanted to ask you about that decision not to patent, was that difficult?

Andre Geim: We actually prepared … it’s a well-known story these days, we actually prepared a patent on the basis of this first paper, our first paper, on graphene and it was with patent lawyers arranging a proper manner of speech and so on. And at that time when it was still with lawyers, I was at a conference, speaking with a representative of a very large multinational company, billions and billions of dollars, so you can guess which company this could be yourself. So, I told, we have this patent concerning graphene, it’s very expensive and troublesome to patent a whole area and possible sideway. Outcomes of this research, would be you interested in collaborating with us, we provide sort of ideas, you keep this patent running and also patent it whatever further comes, we are not very much interested in royalties, very tiny fractions of percent would be good if it ever comes to this one. And the guy told me, You know, we are aware about graphene, it’s a deep promising material, but we don’t think anything will come within the next ten years. If after, year eleven, we find out that this material is as promising as it is, I will put 100 lawyers on this project, each of them will file hundred patents per day and you’ll spend the rest of your life and the GDP of your little island, direct quote, “to try to sue us”. It is very arrogant and so on, but actually it was very useful to know this opinion because then I realised that there is no point of patent whole areas or visionary ideas, graphene electronics, graphene that, graphene this, you have to pinpoint some particular application and then you have a chance to do something otherwise its patent is just a general knowledge and there is no point in patent a general knowledge, so it was a useful comment despite of his arrogance.

Konstantin Novoselov: We should say, since then for several years, when ever came back to the idea of patenting anything so just, until recently. We were enjoying our scientific work only.

And then the application you chose to patent in, were what?

Andre Geim: It’s about flourographene, two dimensional teflons, so I think it’s a bit narrow enough that it may stand a chance to bring some application in foreseeable future which might bring money to this project.

Konstantin Novoselov: We just loved the name two dimensional teflons.

So there has been some debate about whether graphene is two dimensional material or not. Do you think it is a two-dimensional material? Or is this debate in unlearned circles?

Konstantin Novoselov: I am not aware of these debates. Of course you can argue whether it is two dimensional or has some thickness or if you band it or fold it would acquire some three-dimension properties. When we call it two-dimensional, we call it two-dimensional in electronic terms, that electrons behave as being restricted to two dimensions only. Of course, for certain applications or problems, like the mechanical stability, flexural phonons, the repulse on the schiffer of graphene or in graphene, you might consider it as a three dimensional.

So two dimensional teflon is to do what?

Andre Geim: It’s fluorinated graphene to each cover atoms you have attached a fluorine atom, so that’s essentially the same graphene sheet with attached fluorine so it’s two-dimensional teflon. It’s an analogous molecule so a molecule of teflon is just a chain of carbons with the fluorine atoms attached, in this case we have a whole sheet of carbon which is graphene which is /- – -/ metric manner attached fluorine atom to each carbon.

Konstantin Novoselov: But we also seen as the demonstration of another idea, you can consider graphene as a two dimensional material, a two dimensional crystal, but you can also consider it as a giant organic molecule and then you can modify by chemistry and here you can for example attach fluorine to it and use it as an insulator for some applications if you want, but we hope that the idea goes even further. You will be able to modify it by other means as well and acquire some additional or some other properties.

Andre Geim: It’s a new type of chemistry we invented on the basis of graphene, it’s a giant giga molecule which you can modify. Previously, graphene was ‘peppered’ with different chemical molecules or dopes and so on, and in this case just like in chemistry, you take one molecule and you change it, in a very specific manner into something else, and in this case graphene was changed in very specific manner to something else, rather than peppered something else.

And this is the tip of the iceberg because if you can conveniently derivatise, molecules …

Andre Geim: This is exactly what your background in chemistry apparently kicks in, it’s the whole idea and the demonstration Kostya was right, it was two dimensional teflon is additional plus for the outcome of this project but the idea was to demonstrate that you can do this giga molecule chemistry on the basis of graphene, possibly other molecules. It’s not only two-dimensional material you have.

So which applications are you most hopeful of seeing in use? From graphene.

Konstantin Novoselov: Myself, the most hopeful of seeing applications which I haven’t even thought about, because up to now what we had, we just take this material, we figure out which particular properties are slightly better than in other materials like, for example mobility is a little bit better than in silicon, so we can use it for transistor application or transparencies, that would be better than in other material and we can use it for mechanic application. But for me the best one would be when you invent an application for this particular material, because it has this unique combination of very unusual properties; it’s being the strongest, the most elastic, the most conductive, the most transparent, so you just try to invent something for yourself. Now there is bendable electronics, quite fashionable and probably stretchable, electronics or I don’t know, but something like that which doesn’t exist yet, where we don’t use graphene as a replacement for another material for an application which is specifically created for graphene, that is what I am hoping for.

Andre Geim: Let us be clear, usually it takes decades for a material to go from an academic lab into industrial lab. It’s a very long way, involving many, many people before something originated from an academic lab comes to a consumer product. The Nobel Prize, at least as I perceive it, was not given for application, it was given, in my view, for bringing this material to the attention of a wide range of community, not even a single community of physicists, so it’s like a philosopher’s stone stand out to be of material whatever properties this material you touch, whatever properties you touch was this material, it turns out to be magic and applications is just an extra bonus to this project and we never expected that after five years, people would start talking about applications. It did happen and at the moment it’s a promise, a very strong promise for example, recently I was shown a graphene roadmap from Samsung and on this roadmap, there are, I don’t know, twenty, thirty, fifty different points. Each point means a specific application, which happens in a year, say 2012, 2025, and another axe it’s marked capitalisation in billions of dollars per year, so there are many applications, but let’s see, let’s wait for another 3 to 5 years before we will see first gadgets in a wider use.

Yes, because the flipside of all of this, talking about applications, which is if people, if there aren’t any applications in 3-5 years, start saying it hasn’t realized its promise, but of course its promise may be overhyped in the first place, it just may take longer to come through.

Andre Geim: Graphene realised its promise as a beautiful physical system, not as an application material which will comes out it would be the Nobel Prize for applications, given to somebody else.

I wanted to just go back to your scientific beginnings and ask you both why you chose to become physicists? What attracted you in the first place? Andre would you like to start?

Andre Geim: It’s always very simple, you are at school, you are doing one or another subject and I was much better in maths and physics than, say, in literature or in English. Okey, I got all high smart, but I was much better in physics and maths in particular. And then it is natural progression.

And it’s natural to just follow your curiosity and become an academic and not …

Andre Geim: Society is a very competitive place as you probably have become a TV journalist, you try to compete for this or that position, so after school you compete for the best place at the university, for the best place at this place and that place then try, it’s competition moves you forward.

Konstantin Novoselov: I think it is quite a similar story for me and then we just have some good results in your school in physics and maths and then I was quite lucky with the university which I attended, they had this school by remote were they basically sent the solutions of the problems and they were quite careful, quite attending to you, to your needs. Then you want to go to the best university in the country and that is how I ended up in my university and it’s quite a special one, it has connections with the research institutes quite early in your student life so I ended up in the particular lab in Chernogolovka and then the people there are really fantastic and you just want you to become like them and probably supersede them as well.

That is key, isn’t it, that there needs to be somebody that you are looking at, thinking I want to be that person.

Konstantin Novoselov: You know, if you want to be that person that is not good enough, you want to be better.

And you both, now you both work, at the University of Manchester, there was a sojourn in the Netherlands and indeed you are the Dutch citizen. What drew you away from Russia and towards Western Europe?

Konstantin Novoselov: Before I start answering this, I should say probably that, it’s in principle quite natural for scientists to go from one place to another. There are of course circumstances as well, but it is natural, and it should be natural that you do your masters here, you go for your PhD elsewhere and go for a post-doc somewhere else. And that is how I moved from my university, Chernogolovka, to Holland and then in Manchester and I’m a little bit ashamed that I spend already, what, nine years now in Manchester and, it’s probably, I won’t say it now, that it is a good time to move and I’m a little bit ashamed of that. It’s a natural process, it helps in exchanging techniques, knowledge procedures.

I doubt Manchester would want to hear you say you are going anywhere soon. Andre do you have a …

Andre Geim: Yes, for me it was a very breakthrough moment in early 1990’s. In 1990 I was given a six months fellowship to spend in England and I went to the university of Nottingham and within two, three months I realized that using facilities which were available there I can do the same amount of work which I can do within 10 years being using facilities in Russia, so for me it was neither any political nor any economic move, it was just a very professional no choice question. I just had to find a position in the West to be able to realise yourself, a little bit high-word, that it how it was.

That’s an interesting contrast with a point you made just after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, that the fact that graphene has been isolated in such a simple way, sort of gave hope to people working in universities without facilities that you can do great experiments, exciting experiments.

Andre Geim: No, I didn’t say exactly that, what I said that was people who can be not in Ivy League, not in Cambridge and Oxford, who can be in the second-tier universities, can do that. I do not support this move to ideocracy where everyone in the country is academic, everyone has a piece of graphite and a scotch tape and everyone publishes something. You have to do a facility as if could be, you have to have some reasonable degree of elitism and a reasonable degree of concentration of the facilities, so it’s important to move and it’s gives a hope for a second tier university what third, fourth, fifth tier universities they have no chance to contribute and get the Nobel Prize, so that if I said that, that was said wrongly or misunderstood, so you have not only Ivy League, Cambridge, Oxford, but second tier has chance if they are inventive enough.

Ok, thank you. To close, I’d just like to ask you both about each other. Maybe I should do when you are not sitting next to each other, but nevertheless, this is the opportunity. So, first of all, Konstantin, what is it that, you obviously have a strong partnership that works very well, what is it that you admire most about Andre’s work?

Konstantin Novoselov: Andre is, was my supervisor, but supervisor is some cold term, so he’s my teacher. They teach you a lot about physics in the university, but they don’t teach you how to do science. You have to learn by yourself how to do science and it’s just, you only learn about it from someone. Andre got a very specific way of doing science and I’m really glad that I learnt exactly that way that you, first of all you are honest with yourself and you honestly consider the results of your experiments, the very pragmatic way of doing experiments and that has been since my PhD years and then through post-doc years, so I hope … We were always colleagues, that’s how he set up things in the lab, but I learned every day from him, also from other people in the lab of course, but I still learn a lot from him.

Andre Geim: I quite often hear from my colleagues who say, my PhD student, my post-doc, my lab and etcetera. There is this style, if you ever hear my interview I never say ‘my’, I always say ‘our’, sometimes it’s misinterpreted when I say our lab interpreted as Kostya’s lab and my lab, in fact it’s our lab is a community of many people, PhD students, post-docs and staff members and so on. I do not distinguish between PhD student and staff member if they contribute to common work, to their best possible extent, if there is a new PhD student, he is coming and he becomes my colleague rather than anything else. All people are colleagues, but if, ok, of course there is a draw back from this as well, because if students doesn’t contribute, ok, I immediately ignore that. He can continue his PhD studies, but he is no longer a member of our group, because if you like my time to be contributed to your work, to your PhD, etcetera, you have to contribute back. It’s a small society if you wish and it’s very important to treat younger colleagues not like your property or your feudal property, like many of my colleagues still do, but consider them as younger colleagues.

That’s a /- – -/ swim environment, but if you swim, you are swimming with the great. Thank you both very much indeed, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you. I wish you the most enjoyable of Nobel Weeks.

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