Congratulations, Andre and Konstantin. I hope you aren’t the last!
My heartfelt congratulations go to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, of Manchester University, who have today been announced as the winners of the 2010 Nobel prize for physics. Both were born in Russia and worked together in the Netherlands before moving to Manchester University, one of Britain’s top physics institutes.
Geim and Novoselov won the prize for creating graphene. Like so many scientific breakthroughs, this one is amazingly simple.
The scientists used Scotch tape to strip off layers of carbon that were only one atom thick. Known as graphene, these thin wafers of carbon had extraordinary properties. They were stretchy, as strong as steel and almost completely transparent. Being an exceptionally good conductor of heat and electricity, graphene is one of the most exciting new materials for producing electronic components, from touchscreens to pollution sensors. Graphene can also be used to study some of the more peculiar effects of quantum mechanics.
I wonder what the scientific ‘bean-counters’ think of this. Those who think all scientists should be seeking economic rewards from day one of any experiment. Geim and Novoselov were trying to do no such thing. As the Nobel committee has said, “they attempted to create something new, sometimes even by just allowing their brains to meander aimlessly”.
I won’t go quite as far as arguing for aimless meandering, but the TUC has consistently supported blue sky science, because so many breakthroughs that are of huge economic benefit (the internet is the oft-quoted example, but there are many others) came about as spin-offs from blue sky research. We support this for other reasons too. Perhaps the most important other reason is that we attract young people into science by appealing to their imaginations and their sense of discovery. Undervalue blue sky research and we put that at risk.
I hope blue sky research is properly recognised in the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review. I think David Willetts, the Science Minister, gets it. I just hope he wins the political argument with the Treasury. If he doesn’t, I don’t imagine Manchester and our other fine science facilities will go on attracting potential Nobel prize winning physicists. A sad day for Britain that will be.