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Innovation Blog

10 % Wild Friday Nights: Your Key to a Nobel Prize:

“Let’s Levitate a Frog And See What Happens”

By Shlomo Maital

   Recently ScienceWatch.com’s Gary Taubes interviewed fresh Nobel Prize winner Konstantin Novoselov.  Here is what Novoselov said in describing the interesting process that generated the breakthrough discovery of how to make a form of carbon, grapheme,  only one atom thick:

My background is in mesoscopic physics, studying fairly macroscopic objects that show some quantum effects. I did my Ph.D. with Andre Geim—first in Holland—and when he moved to the UK he invited me here as a post-doc. The style of Geim’s lab (which I’m keeping and supporting up to now) is that we devote ten percent of our time to so-called “Friday evening” experiments. I just do all kinds of crazy things that probably won’t pan out at all, but if they do, it would be really surprising. Geim did frog levitation as one of these experiments, and then we did gecko tape together. There are many more that were unsuccessful and never went anywhere (though I still had a good time thinking about and doing those experiments, so I love them no less than the successful ones).

This graphene business started as that kind of Friday evening experiment. We weren’t hoping for much, and when I gave it to a student, it initially failed. Then we had what you could call a stream of coincidences that basically brought us some very remarkable results quite quickly—within a week or so. Then we decided to continue on a more serious basis.

Part of every innovator’s time should be devoted to wild and crazy things (to quote comedian Steve Martin), that are fun, arouse laughter and are memorable.  Most of the time, nothing comes of them. I’m not sure whether the course of history, or the wellbeing of humanity, would be changed by successfully suspending a frog in mid-air.  But certainly,  the Friday night experiment with cellotape and a pencil, which began with low expectations, ultimately led to the Nobel-Prize-winning discovery of graphen and may well be world-changing. 

    There is great importance to doing this on a regular basis.  That way, the ‘wild’ muscle is regularly exercised and thus does not atrophy.    That ‘wild’ muscle sometimes creates explosive breakthrough discoveries – as in the case of Novoselov and Geim.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
October 2010
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