I was watching a program on the BBC the other day, about a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of graphene. What really piqued my interest was his slightly bonkers approach to science – which was undoubtedly what led to the discovery.
Back in 2001, when Sir Andre Geim became a professor of physics at Manchester University, he set up a Friday night experiment club for his students. It was mostly just for fun, to play around without the pressure of results and deadlines, but it was also to gain a better understanding of the materials that make up the world around us. Indeed, unlike other scientists, Geim has made switching fields a key part of his career to gain new perspective and insight: “Many people choose a subject for their PhD and then continue the same subject until they retire. I despise this approach. I changed my subject five times before I got my first tenured position and that helped me learn different subjects.”
In one such club evening, Geim was inspired to use sticky tape to peel away thin films of graphite, instead of using the traditional method of polishing the material. The resulting layers were so thin they were almost translucent under the microscope. This was Geim’s ‘Eureka’ moment. Here was an extraordinary material with the enticing potential to revolutionise technology: graphene is the strongest material known on Earth – stronger than diamond – conducts electricity better than copper, is supple and transparent. Its discovery whipped up a frenzy of excitement, with some hailing it as the Philosopher’s stone.
Its staggering simplicity fits entirely with Geim’s playful approach to science. No-one thought graphite could be reduced to a single atom – and certainly no-one thought that it could be done with something as trivial as sticky tape.
As well as winning the Nobel prize, Geim was also bestowed with the tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel prize for his work on magnetism. Geim had listened to rumours that if you attach a magnet to your shower, or inside a kettle, limescale didn’t accumulate. To test this, Geim threw caution to the wind and poured water in some very expensive magnetic equipment.
Remarkably, he found that the water levitated. People did not believe that objects could levitate under magnetism, so Geim tried it again with a tiny frog. “Even in science, you need a ‘wow’ factor,” Geim said, with knowing. As he predicted, the tiny frog levitated and the scientific community were awed.
An American parody, the Ig Nobel prize is awarded for trivial or unusual achievements in scientific research. Many of Geim’s colleagues would have found such a tribute mortifying, but Geim was thrilled: “Annoying your colleagues is a pleasure I could never give up,” he chuckled.
Geim’s provocative style of research allows him to take risks and deliberately stray from the mainstream. His playful methods and instincts are supported by clear thinking and a broad understanding. It means that he clearly can see those ideas with promise and potential from those that would not be so fruitful. This is why we emphasise the need for intelligent naivety – and not just naivety.
Geim believes that anyone can do this. It’s about working outside of your comfort zone, seeing the world through a child’s eyes by seeking new experiences. It is this vitality of inexperience that brings fresh possibilities. Certainly, many of the great Challenger brands set up without any previous experience in their chosen category. Two great examples are method and innocent – both started by people with no experience in cleaning products and smoothies. So although we are all taught the importance of category familiarity, perhaps we should ‘unlearn’ and take a step back to ask the questions that the rest of the category is too close to ask anymore.