Monday, January 17, 2011

The Power of Play

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to two professors from the University of Manchester for groundbreaking experiments with a material called graphene.

Graphene has the potential to one day make your iPad feel about as dynamic as a brick. It’s thin (one atom thick), strong (100 times stronger than steel), light, transparent and conducting. It could be used for things like touch screens, solar cells, gas censors, DNA sequencing, faster computer chips and bendable electronics. A one meter square hammock made from graphene could hold a four kilogram cat, and would weigh as much as one of its whiskers.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in October for being the first to pin this “two-dimensional” material down and tell us about it. And what I like most about this story is their reputation for playfulness as a way to discovery. Where others failed, these guys managed to extract graphene from graphite (that’s the stuff in your pencil) by, as a first step, sticking it between two ends of Scotch tape and pulling it apart again. And again. And again.

I’m not surprised that one of these guys once made a frog levitate in a magnetic field to demonstrate the principles of physics: it’s the sign of a mind that understands the power of play. It’s thanks to this kind of nimble thinking that we will one day be able to make the almost unimaginable a reality.