Nobel physicists with a history of quirky research

5th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Physics Prize Tuesday, won worldwide acclaim for discovering graphene but they have a history of quirky research, from "gecko tape" to levitating frogs.

Dutchman Geim, 51, and British-Russian Novoselov, 36, were both born in Russia and began their physics careers there, a generation apart, before beginning work together a decade ago in The Netherlands.

When Geim moved to Britain in 2001, his colleague followed and it was there, at the University of Manchester in 2004, that they made their breakthrough.

The pair discovered an ultra-thin, ultra-strong form of carbon known as graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms densely packed into a honeycomb lattice that Geim has described as a "wonder material".

It has many potential uses and is tipped as a likely successor to silicon in electronics.

Although Geim has more experience than his younger colleague, friends say they could only have done what they did together.

"Andre is the man sitting behind the desk and Konstantin is the hands-on one -- they couldn't have won the Nobel if they hadn't worked together," Jan Kees Maan, a professor and one-time colleague of Geim in The Netherlands, told AFP.

Both men expressed shock at winning the prestigious prize, but for Geim it was recognition for just one part of his career which he admitted last year has "jumped from one research subject to another".

Among his work was the discovery that apparently non-magnetic substances can be levitated in a magnetic field -- a finding he made by making a frog seemingly float in the air in 1997.

That project won Geim a share of the 2000 Ig Nobel prize, Harvard University's humorous take on the Nobel awards that are given to those who "make people laugh and then make them think".

Geim and Novoselov also did some groundbreaking work on a new adhesive tape that mimics the properties of geckos' feet, which is now being followed up by other research groups.

The Nobel prize committee recognised the pair's inventiveness, saying: "Playfulness is one of their hallmarks, one always learns something in the process and, who knows, you may even hit the jackpot."

Geim was born in 1958 in Sochi, Russia, and studied first at the Moscow Physical-Technical Institute, then at the Institute of Solid State Physics in Chernogolovka, an academic hub near the capital.

He left in 1990 for Europe -- his parents moved to Germany around the same time -- and worked in Britain and Denmark before becoming an associate professor at the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, where he met Novoselov.

Geim, a keen mountain climber, is married and has a young daughter.

Novoselov followed a similar academic path to his mentor, winning a clutch of international prizes along the way and becoming a research fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's national science academy.

He was born in the Russian Urals, near Siberia, in 1974 and studied at the Moscow Physical-Technical University and then Chernogolovka, before moving to The Netherlands.

When Geim was appointed professor of physics at Manchester in northwest England in 2001, Novoselov followed him and three years later the pair made their breakthrough on graphene. Novoselov is now also a professor.

Last year, when Geim was awarded a research professorship at the Royal Society, he promised he would keep searching for new discoveries.

"My experience shows that there is still a surprising plenitude of phenomena waiting out there to be discovered," he said.

"It is hard to jump between subjects but it is worth the effort. It is also great fun to search for something unexpected rather than research the same area from the academic cradle to the grave."

© 2010 AFP

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