Andre Geim: the discovery of graphene

Graphene is this revolutionary material: 200 times stronger than steel. Harder than diamond. Better conductor of electricity than copper. Yet extremely thin – it’s just one layer of atom thick! The material was theorised to exist in 1962. But it wasn’t until 2004 that Andre Geim made it in a lab.

For his research on graphene, Geim won the Nobel prize in Physics. But it’s funny how he actually made the miracle material.

Graphene is made out of graphite: the thing your pencils have. But it’s the thinnest sliver of graphite. Many scientists in various labs were using specialized machines to try and extract graphene out of graphite. But no one had been successful. Because graphite is just a layer of atoms thick!

A Phd student in Geim’s lab was trying to reduce a piece of graphite down to 10 to 100 microns thick too. But was unsuccessful. He had managed to reduce the size only up to 1000 microns. 

That’s when Geim tried something ridiculous. One Friday, he took a piece of scotch tape and peeled it off graphite. He did this again and again. And that’s how he discovered graphene – a single layer of carbon allotrope that was stronger than diamond!

The process was so “unscientific” that the paper he published – the paper that won him the Nobel – was rejected twice by the “Nature” journal!

Graphene wasn’t Geim’s first scientific breakthrough! He had a history of chasing the ridiculous!

Making frogs levitate

A few years back, Geim poured a bottle of water out on a very powerful electromagnet! Droplets of water defied gravity and started floating in the powerful magnetic field! Geim didn’t stop there. He poured beer after that. And finally, he tried the same idea on a small frog – and the frog levitated!

This experiment earned him the Ig Nobel prize – a satirical prize given to the most unusual scientific achievements!

That’s not all, Geim had also created a violin string out of spider silk. And gecko tape – an adhesive tape that mimicked the feet of gecko.

And all of these breakthroughs came on a Friday!

Friday night experiments

What’s so special about Fridays? Geim had created a ritual. Friday night was a day reserved to work on ridiculous ideas. All the lab scientists got together and brainstormed on the most outlandish ideas they could try!

These all were ideas that would never get funded. But they had to be tried. Because as Geim says: “it’s better to be wrong than to be boring!”

And to be sure, Geim is wrong a lot. Only 12.5% of their Friday experiments end up being interesting. The bulk of the experiments fail and would be called time wasting. But the ones that succeed end up disrupting the field!

How to master the ridiculous

The foundation of ridiculousness lies in the willingness to let go of inhibitions. Break social conventions. And take unconventional risks by doing the absurd.

How can you build a culture of ridiculousness like Andre Geim?

  • You’ve got to surround yourself with folks who can laugh at the silly. If you only have task masters on your team, you won’t have accidental breakthroughs.
  • You’ve got to focus on thinking up pranks and jokes. What’s the most out of the box absurd thing you can do?
  • You’ve got to think like an amateur. Question assumptions that everyone agrees with. 

In fact, Geim teaches that folks should adopt a philosophy of “shallow grazing.” Do work in a new field for a few years and then get out. Jump from field to field and you will build up a unique set of knowledge. It’ll make you more creative and help you come up with more disruptive ideas!

Action Summary:

  • Be ridiculous. Trying things no one has thought of is the 100% surefire way of getting breakthroughs 10% of the time.
  • You can’t be ridiculous all the time. So set out a fixed time when you will do nothing but ridiculous.