ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
The star of the physics world today is a new form of carbon: graphene. It's the world's thinnest material, also perhaps the strongest.
The two scientists who discovered graphene back in 2004 have won this year's Nobel Prize for Physics. But among non-physicists, a leader of the team may already be more famous for one of his laboratory tricks - using magnets to levitate a frog.
NPR's Dan Charles reports.
You don't get a Nobel Prize for tricks with frogs. For that, there's the Ig Nobel Prize devoted to silly science. And Andre Geim, a Russian-born physicist at the University of Manchester in England, has now become the first scientist to win both.
He won his Ig Nobel 10 years ago. Geim told everyone at the Ig Nobel award ceremony that levitating a frog led to lots of requests, including one from the leader of a small religious group in England...
Professor ANDRE GEIM (Physics, University of Manchester): Who offered us a million of pounds if we could levitate him in front of his congregation to improve his public relations, apparently.
CHARLES: There was a real point to the frog experiment, which is why pictures of it are in lots of physics textbooks. It demonstrates a phenomenon called diamagnetism. Diamagnetic materials like water are pushed away by magnetic fields, so a really powerful magnetic field can hold up a frog, which is mostly water.
Professor ALLAN MacDONALD (Physics, University of Texas, Austin): He's just exceptionally creative.
CHARLES: Allan MacDonald, professor of physics at the University of Texas in Austin, is a longtime admirer of Geim's work.
Prof. MacDONALD: He's always looking for something new, and wanting to be creative is not enough. He just has tremendous intuition.
CHARLES: That intuition came into play in the discovery of graphene. Six or seven years ago, Geim and a more junior colleague, Konstantin Novoselov, took a block of graphite, the same material that's in the center of a pencil, stuck some Scotch tape to it, then pulled the tape off.
Graphite is made from billions of layers of carbon atoms laid on top of each other. Geim and Novoselov thought that maybe the tape would pull off just a few of these layers, maybe even just one.
Amazingly, the Scotch tape method worked. And in October of 2004, the two scientists announced they'd managed to create single sheets of carbon just one atom thick.
Physicist Philip Kim at Columbia University remembers reading the paper and feeling scooped.
Professor PHILIP KIM (Physics, Columbia University): Oh, no, that it worked out in this way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. KIM: That was probably my reaction, from such a simple thing, Scotch tape.
CHARLES: Kim had been trying to do the same thing using more high-tech methods.
All of these scientists wanted to get their hands on super thin layers of carbon because they were pretty sure that this new material, grapheme, would exhibit some remarkable physical behavior.
Prof. MacDONALD: Things are special in two dimensions.
CHARLES: Allan MacDonald from the University of Texas points out that in graphene, electrons cannot move up or down, they can only move around this flat sheet. And suddenly, they move differently, at a constant speed more like light.
But graphene also has more practical properties. It's stronger than steel, a superb electrical conductor and it's transparent. Scientists speculate it may eventually be useful in all kinds of electrical devices, from mobile phones to computer chips.
Andre Geim said today he's not too concerned about all these future uses. In fact, he told the BBC accepting his Ig Nobel prize showed more courage.
Prof. GEIM: I'm proud that we did take this prize and we have shown enough sense of humor and irony about our own work.
CHARLES: Geim says it won't take much courage to accept a Nobel Prize. He and Konstantin Novoselov will receive their awards in Stockholm in December.
Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.
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