Sir Andre Geim interview: Father of graphene – 'I'm an alien among my own, and on my own among aliens'

The James Ashton Interview: The Nobel Prize-winning physicist on his need to keep on discovering, the value of risk-taking, his attitude to Russia, and why the most valuable benefit of his fame is a car-parking space

James Ashton
Monday 10 November 2014 00:15
Professor Sir Andre Geim at his office at the University of Manchester
Professor Sir Andre Geim at his office at the University of Manchester

He will forever be the father of graphene, the wonder material one-atom-thick and 200 times stronger than steel, but for a few days this summer, Sir Andre Geim was someone else entirely.

Laid up in a hospital bed in Flagstaff, Arizona, after an accident rafting in the Grand Canyon which, he will only say, he “barely survived”, Geim’s curious nurses Googled the patient with the thick thatch of greying hair and gluey German accent.

“They probably wanted to know if I could pay my bill or not,” laughs Geim, long since discharged. They happened upon his Nobel Prize and his knighthood, but were more fascinated by an experiment he conducted years earlier, when studying the effects of magnetism on water, in which he levitated a frog.

“I was known for the three other days I spent in hospital as ‘Mr Levitating Frog’ and there was a queue of young beautiful nurses who wanted to shake my hand,” the physicist says with a broad grin.

It’s hard to know whether Geim was more tickled by the attention, or the fact that it didn’t centre on graphene. Since his team first isolated the material a decade ago by using sticky tape to peel translucent carbon flakes off a block of graphite, business leaders, politicians and scientists have beaten a path to his door and the list of potential commercial uses – think lightweight aircraft wings, high-performance batteries, ultra-sensitive condoms – has grown longer.

For Geim, it has meant a curious form of celebrity. Everyone wants to know his view on how big the discovery could become – and how well-equipped British science and industry is to take advantage of it. He just wants to keep on discovering.

“Graphene is dead, long live graphene,” he says, fiddling with his sleek black coffee machine that sits on a windowsill in his cluttered office at the University of Manchester.

Translated, it means that Geim, 56, has little to do with the National Graphene Institute (NGI), a Government-backed centre a short walk across campus that is designed to put Britain at the heart of this new industrial revolution when it opens next year. Instead, he is head down in the lab, trying to disassemble other substances into two-dimensional “atomic planks” that can be layered into something entirely different to test the boundaries of conductivity and flexibility.

Scientists have already pored over graphene and related materials for a decade. The story will play out over the next 20 years, Geim believes, although within five to 10 years “we will know more or less where we are”.

“I can cope with decent completion but not with overcrowding,” he says, describing his attitude to science as “trying to put stakes in the ground”. He appears underwhelmed at the Government’s support for the nascent industry he had a hand in creating – especially as he says £45m of the NGI’s £61m budget is going on the building, not the science.

“They are doing their best, the question is whether this best is enough,” he says, leaning against his filing cabinet in the corner of the room as if he is holding court in a tutorial. “For comparison, in Singapore, they get a £50m, 10-year investment and it doesn’t include bricks and mortar. It is essential investment for the salaries of researchers and equipment. This is comparable with most of the money that went into this beautiful architectural monument across the road.”

It sounds as though he has said as much to George Osborne, the Chancellor and champion of graphene as part of his vision for a northern economic powerhouse – on the rare occasion they have spoken.

“I try to find myself somewhere else when he is visiting so I have an excuse not to meet him,” Geim says.

He doubts that politicians, always changing jobs, can best serve the long-term nature of science, but later he qualifies his comment, adding: “I couldn’t possibly snub Osborne. He is a politician and he doesn’t have much money. I said I would prefer this money to be distributed to science in general rather than to particular research.”

He thinks any extra money funnelled into science should be spent according to scientists’ peer reviews of breakthrough work.

“Many of my colleagues are not able to run their family budget,” he concedes. “On the other hand, I look at some of the apparatchiks in research councils and I have even less trust in their abilities. Good intentions have always paved the road to hell.”

He says Britain’s success with graphene should be measured not in terms of patents registered, but by how many small companies have been spun out of universities, and in this regard, compared to, say, the semi-conductor hothouse of South Korea, “I think we are doing OK”.

If Britain is to do better, it needs more people “who will take this knowledge further”. That sounds like a clarion call for more immigration, but Geim is not biting. “It is everything from your family education to school education and university education; it is about the system where we live.”

In America, he says, there is an entrepreneurial spirit of not relying on the state. Here, universities must stop breeding students with the “mentality of civil servants” and teach risk-taking. Geim has had to push members of his own team that showed promise.

“I told one guy: you have a choice, you either get unemployed from next month because I terminate your contract or you start your own company and then you will get all my support and the support the university can provide.”

But he is not the man to lead such ventures, insisting he would be no good at it. Geim accuses journalists, among others, of propagating the idea “that one person can cover one thing from science to industry… some people think Bill Gates invented computers.” He appears to regard talking to the press as part of his duty, although he ranks journalists on a par with civil servants and leaves the reading of his press coverage to his wife or the university’s vice chancellor: “If they say it was great it means good; if they say good it means crap.”

But Geim’s bored mien and snappy soundbites belie a deep thinker who holds his public service remit dear: “Look, I am paid by taxpayers for the delivery of new knowledge without which there wouldn’t be any new technology. As academics, we are fulfilling our social function.”

Nor does he make many demands now he is a superstar. When he won the Nobel Prize – jointly with his colleague Sir Kostya Novoselov – all he asked the vice chancellor for was a parking space in the front of his building. Not having to walk in from the car park “saves a lot of my life – 20 minutes every day of wasted time”.

Geim came to work in Manchester in 2001, more than a decade after the Soviet Union’s disintegration freed him to carve a career in Europe. By that stage, he was already renowned, and there were offers from prestigious universities in several countries. He was swayed in part by the “very touching” dual offer for him and his wife, Irina.

They met in Chernogolovka, a science city on the outskirts of Moscow, and married in 1988. Geim was marked out as clever early on in life during his time spent with his grandmother, a meteorologist, in Sochi, a town on the Black Sea. These days, he has a love-hate relationship with Russia, whose research programmes, he said, put little value on the contrarian view.

“When I lived in Russia I was never called Russian because of my German ethnicity and if I was called, I was usually called a fascist or a bloody Jew or something like that,” he says, one hand shaking a bit as he crafts the second super-strong coffee in the hour we spend together. “So at the age of 40 or 50 to accept that you are Russian is pretty hard. It is strange, it is surreal, to be alien among your own and to be on your own among aliens.”

Geim is somewhere between Nigel Farage and Osborne on immigration, although he doesn’t like Farage: “He is a populist and I intuitively don’t like populists.” But he thinks the international community should reconsider its approach to Vladimir Putin, who remains “extremely popular” among Russian people.

“This is the same mistake we are making in Iran, Afghanistan and Syria most lately because we try to project our own mentality, being born and bred in democracy with our humanitarian values, into people who were born and bred under completely different circumstances. That is the reason for many, many tragic events including this civil war [with Ukraine], Isis and so on.”

Geim expects still to be working at the age of 75. But don’t expect him to mellow with age. “Someone has to take a stone and throw it into the bog and see what the waves will be,” he says as I get up to leave. “You get some splashes of dirt on yourself, but I can cope with this.”

CV in brief

Education: Born in 1958 in Sochi, then part of the Soviet Union. Studied at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and in 1987 gained a PhD equivalent from the Institute of Solid State Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Chernogolovka.

Career so far: In 1990, came to Britain as a post-doctoral fellow at Nottingham University, moving to Bath and then Copenhagen. Made associate professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Arrived at the University of Manchester in 2001 as professor of physics, later becoming Royal Society research professor at the Manchester Centre for Mesoscience and Nanotechnology. Shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010

Personal: Married to Irina Grigorieva, who is also a professor at the University of Manchester. They have a daughter, 14.

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