In an era in which the Nobel Prize is awarded mostly to research far removed from the world of touch-and-feel and the familiar, there is, on the face of it, something prosaic about the subject of this year's award. Graphene, for whose discovery the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, is something every child who has used the humble pencil may have unwittingly produced. The very method of producing this new two-dimensional crystal, a single layer version of the graphite crystals that constitute the ‘lead' in pencils, using adhesive tape to separate the various layers, reinforces this feel of the familiar. Yet this material has unexpected properties that appear to open the door to an astonishingly varied range of applications, something that have been the subject of intense research since the discovery in 2004. For those whose expectations of cutting edge physics is firmly fixed on the exotic, graphene provides that too, with its one-atom thick structure furnishing a unique table-top setting for the exploration of the relativistic phenomena of the micro-world. “Playfulness,” as the press release from Stockholm noted in an unusual emphasis (a sort of studied departure from gravitas), is one of the hallmarks of the awardees' work. Andre Geim has levitated frogs using magnets, levitation without meditation as a wag observed, as a pedagogical illustration of the phenomenon of diamagnetism. At a more serious level, Geim's research has produced material that, in its ability to adhere to surfaces, mimics the sticking power of geckos' feet.
This playful research though was done on no sandlot but at a university that boasts no fewer than 23 Nobel Prize winners among its past and present faculty, a line that began with the pioneer of atomic and nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford, in 1907. On a pessimistic note, this suggests that the Mathews effect in science, as the pioneering sociologist of science, Robert Merton, christened it, holds for institutions as well. “For to all those who have more will be given, and they will have an abundance”; success breeds yet more success and later arrivals to scientific competition in the era of the knowledge economy will have to struggle ever harder. The consoling part of the story is that at the individual level, as the record of Geim and Novoselov demonstrates, the credo of making do with what is available combined with creativity and the ability to leave the beaten path still counts — leading from playful discovery to an enduring entry in the record of science.