To be honest, it’s bone-numbingly cold in Stockholm just now. So it was quite a relief to step (well, in fact, skate, and in a very nearly equally bone-numbing fashion) into the chocka-packed great hall of the Stockholm University this morning to listen to the 2010 Nobel Physics lecture.
The 2010 Laureates are two men – Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov – born in Russia but working in Manchester. Andre is in his early 50s and Kostya in his 30s and, standing together dressed in immaculate slate grey suits and white shirts, they had something of the look of the Blues Brothers. And what they had to say to a wide-eyed audience was every bit as cool as the iconic 80s foot-tapper.
I admit to being a bit of a part-time physics wonk, in a strictly amateurish kind of way. But who couldn’t be astonished by the story of graphene, the foundation of Andre’s and Kostya’s award? Graphene is the two-dimensional cousin of graphite, the carbon stuff of lead pencils. The 2010 Physics story is in part an unfolding drama of how two men worked to isolate and then re-produce this extraordinary material. And it is in part a science-fiction glimpse of a future in which graphene, one atom thick but astonishingly flexible and strong, becomes part of a new generation of materials with applications in medicine, biotechnology and optics. Andre talked about how he had made the crucial breakthrough in isolating graphene by picking up flakes of graphite from a pencil lead using sellotape. Kostya talked about how the “discovery” of this first two-dimensional material would allow combinations of future two-dimensional variants of common atomic structures to create a whole new world of materials.
My favourite graphene idea involves a cat and a hammock. Oh yes. If you were to cut a piece of graphene 1m by 1 m square – and bear in mind it is one atom thick – and attach each end to a tree to create a graphene hammock it would support the weight of a sleeping cat. But the cat would probably not be sleeping at this point since the hammock would in effect be invisible. Quite a sight.
Hammocks will never be the same again.