“… sometimes there are very simple experiments and very simple discoveries to be made using what is at hand”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Andre Geim following the announcement of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, 5 October 2010. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Andre Geim] Andre Geim.
[Adam Smith] Oh, hello. Professor Geim, this is Adam Smith calling from the Nobel Foundation website, in Stockholm. Congratulations on the Prize. We have a tradition of recording very short telephone interviews with new Laureates. Would you be willing to record a few minutes interview with me?
[AG] Yeah, carry on.
[AS] Thank you very much. So I gathered that from your Press Conference at the KVA that the news interrupted other plans that you had for the day?
[AG] Yes, Sir, that’s correct, ok, yeah. I was planning to write a paper and answer hundreds of emails I usually get from my collaborators. So, it’s work, work and work. And, yeah, Nobel Prize interrupted my work. I’m not sure that it’s a useful interruption, ok, certainly it’s a pleasant one.
[AS] You sound like somebody who might be able to handle the interruption though.
[AG] Yeah, I used to answer enquiries of journalists and so on. So it was not a new experience in my life.
[AS] I’d like to start by asking you about your research style. It seems that play is a very important part of your research.
[AG] Yeah, there is a sort of, you know … there are different sort of scientists. Some of them that work on a particular subject usually induced by their supervisor at early PhD years. And, then they continue through the whole life studying essentially the same subject. Not that I’m despising this style. I understand that different people are different, and they’re allowed to do whatever they want.
But, for me, it’s very boring to deal with the same subject year after year. So, whenever we are doing any particular research, at the same time I’m looking what else can be done. Using the facilities and knowledge we have at hand … And, yeah, this is essentially the case. And, ok, whatever I do, even if I’m doing graphene all the time, I’m thinking, “Ok, what else? What can be used to?” And, usually, it comes out something like late evening or Friday night experiments where you try something very elementary and try to go into one or another direction. And, ninety nine times out of hundred, you do not succeed, but, sometimes there are very simple experiments and very simple discoveries to be made using what is at hand. OK, example, some popular … Not popular but educational experiments, like levitating everything what is around in the lab, which was eventually to emphasize the importance of diamagnatism. We levitated a frog and, later, we did experiments with gecko tape, making the first realistic example of a tape which uses the same mechanism which geckos use to climb walls. And, graphene was within this series of very many failures, but this was a successful one!
But, those three examples are only something which you can expect the general public and people who do not have a specific knowledge … OK, similar experiments were on much more boring, if you wish, much more Boffin-like topics, before and after.
[AS] It’s not bad to get a Nobel Prize for a subject that you describe as being ‘non-Boffin-like’. That’s nice!
[AG] Yeah, it’s, it’s very non-Boffin-like. A big part of it, it’s straightforward, OK. Do you want me to explain which part is non-Boffin-like?
[AS] No, no, it’s ok. I mean, for a start, the isolation of graphene using Scotch tape seems beautifully non-Boffin-like and wonderfully accessible. It gives hope to all.
[AG] Yeah, it’s a great educational experiment. In a sense not that it’s isolation of graphene: it shows people that, in fact, you don’t need to be in a Harvard or Cambridge, in one of the universities which collect the smartest people and the best equipment. You can be in the second or even third rated universities in terms of facilities and, whatever, prestige, but you still can do something amazing and something which, I hope, this is an example, which brings more enthusiasm to young generation of inspiring scientists, that they can do something without being at the best place at the best time.
[AS] Hmm, hmm, that’s a nice message. The trick in having this approach of playing with new things while finishing off old things must be getting the balance right. You have to learn to find new areas while not neglecting the one’s you’re working on.
[AG] Yeah, balance is important. And, putting long hours because nothing comes for free. If you … It’s extremely hard, it’s extremely hard. First of all, not all the experiments I mentioned – levitating frog, gecko tape, graphene – were originally funded by anyone, ok. And, only graphene later got some research grants to continue this work on another level. But, essentially, you have your work for which you are paid and, yeah, you have not to neglect this work. So, at the same time, you want to start a new subject and, it requires a lot of hours to find the previous literature because, if you are not an expert, you have to look through the literature not to invent the wheel again. And, this is the hardest one.
And, in addition, OK, balance is not as important as courage. Because … Courage is really important because you stumble on something, ok, which you are still not confident. You feel, ok, sort of you feel secure within your own research area and what you are doing. If you are doing something new, you always can be considered as a fool, inventing the wheel, as I said. Or, you can just be wasting your time. So, the courage is not social courage. The courage is about, ok, investing your time into something which might turn out like a blip.
[AS] I suppose that, there again, play comes in because if work is being play, partly, then it’s easier to put the time in.
[AG] Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, my work is my hobby. Some people would call me a workaholic. I don’t consider this time: I just love my work so much, so it’s my real hobby, ok. And, yeah, getting some play during working hours for which you are paid is the best job I can recommend for anyone around!
[AS] Much of course, now, is made of the possibility for graphene’s applications. But, am I right in thinking that you’re more fundamentally interested in the basic science that can be accessed through graphene?
[AG] Yes … By my background, my knowledge and my experience, ok, just pushed me into the direction of studying fundamental properties of this research. I guess the Nobel Prize is mostly for discovering the fundamental properties despite it’s so short in citation. It’s probably for fundamental properties. On the other hand, you see the huge amounts of possible applications and you can’t just stop yourself playing again, trying to demonstrate proof of concept devices.
During the last five years, I compared myself with those Jack London books where people go in Alaska through a mountain pass trying to carry big rucksacks full of stakes in their rucksacks. And, after this mountain pass, they try to put those stakes in the ground to cover their area. So, I many times compared myself with these gold miners who are trying to put a lot of stakes in the ground. So, many of those stakes, I put during the last five years were on proof of concept devices, whether they were LCD devices, liquid crystal displays using graphene, or ultra sensitive chemical sensors, or transistors.
Having such a new and amazing material with so many potential applications, it just forces to think about applications. You consider, as you said, it’s a part of play making something that’s maybe not that non-Boffin but a little bit Boffin-like, but still new.
[AS] If one extends the gold miner analogy a little bit, I suppose those gold miners suffered tremendous competition from each other. How do you view the competition in the graphene field now because it’s so huge?
[AG] It’s enormous competition, OK. So we are more or less free from competition for the first three years, which allowed us to put a lot of stakes in the ground. It’s essentially because this routine which most professionals use in the field when they find something interesting worth pursuing, they employ a post doc or PhD student and it typically takes two, three years to produce a result. On the other hand, my style is just, ok, switch off from one direction and switch on another direction. So, we are … in this style we were a little bit ahead of the competition. But, yes, competition is enormous with thousands of researchers involved. I have, I tried, I’m very proud when I scoop someone, ok. I scoop quite a few people in the area, but I have been scooped on a regular basis myself, ok. So, I’m sorry about myself and sorry about many other people, like Phillip Kim for example, a researcher from Columbia whom I’ve certainly scooped quite a few times but he scooped me back!
[AS] So, do you see yourself migrating away from the graphene field in the future?
[AG] Ah, I can accurately predict only the past. Yeah, future is, really hard to predict. At the moment, each time I’m tempted to leave the area for something which is less crowded … In effect I have been doing this for the last three years, trying to migrate away. But, graphene is such a huge research area that it’s possible to make a switch in your research direction as large as we did a couple of times, which from physics into chemistry, and it’s always in graphene. So, in a sense, I jumped already using this play, or game, analogy a couple of times – but it was within the graphene research area. So, yes, I’m trying to find a subarea of the research and it can be as far from – as far in knowledge as say a flying frog from graphene. So, it’s a lot of work and a lot of knowledge was acquired during the five years time, although these days everything comes under the umbrella of graphene, if it’s even very far within the same area.
[AS] Right. May I just ask you about your relationship with your co-Laureate, Kostya? You’ve worked together for some time and it’s obviously …
[AG] Ah, yeah, he came as a PhD student. Although I was not officially his supervisor, non officially he was my PhD student. I invited him from Russia when I was working in Nijmegan. And, you see how good he was! So, the first thing when I left the Netherlands was to invite him as a post doctoral researcher although he didn’t get his PhD at that time. So, we were working for the last, I would, say twelve years together. I do not make my … with people whom I respect, it’s Kostya and quite a few others, I don’t make much distinction between whether you’re a PhD student or whether you’re a full professor. As long as you work hard and you work efficiently, all people are colleagues. So, that was appreciated. So, it’s one of those cases where usually people fall out, especially if there is something big to share. We didn’t fall out. We will never.. we’re OK. And, ah, yeah, he’s one of the two, three, five colleagues with whom I’m really happy to spend my working hours.
[AS] Thank you. I should just finish by asking, since you’re the first Laureate, to my knowledge, to have been awarded an IgNobel Prize and a Nobel Prize, do you plan to …
[AG] To my knowledge too!
[AS] Do you plan to display them together in the office?
[AG] Ah. Unfortunately, the IgNobel Prize … I have somewhere the IgNobel Prize in my office. But, it’s not really something, ok, visually attractive. OK, but speaking seriously, I’m actually quite proud of my IgNobel Prize – not because of IgNobel Prize – it’s a more subtle association. Essentially, yeah, IgNobel Prize is given for something which forces people to smile. And, that was always the idea behind the flying frog, which we shared with another distinguished scientist, Professor Sir Michael Berry, known for his ‘Berry phase’. And, the second thing which with Nobel Prize, it’s quite obvious that, if you are offered, I’m not aware about anyone who rejected an offer of Nobel Prize, ok. Although history might be long.
[AS] Well, there’s Jean Paul Sartre but, otherwise, you’re pretty much right, yes.
[AG] Yeah, ok, so, so … But, with IgNobel Prize they ask you a few weeks in advance whether you are ready to accept this prize or not. So we considered hard and, at the end, we had courage to accept this IgNobel Prize, yeah. So, I’m proud that I had enough courage to do that and I do not regret accepting it.
[AS] It certainly doesn’t seem to have done you any harm. On the contrary, I suspect.
[AG] Yeah, with the benefit of hingsight! Ha!
[AS] Ok, well thank you very much …
[AG] Ah, ok, bye.
[AS] A great pleasure to speak to you, thank you. Bye, bye.
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