Nobel Prizes are sometimes perfunctory – lifetime achievement, arcane fields. Not this year. The Nobel committees seem to have their brains operating with a vision; they’re seeing a larger context and signaling their awareness.
This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology went to Robert Edwards the founding father of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This is the procedure that removes an egg from the mother, fertilizes it externally (in-vitro), and then places it back into the mother or another woman for gestation. In the thirty years since it was developed IVF has resulted in more than 4 million children, most of them born to parents unable to conceive on their own. This was and to a certain extent remains one of the more controversial procedures. “Test tube babies” is still a pejorative. The Catholic Church is still pronouncing IVF akin to evil. At the very least it was a harbinger for all the procedures to come that would affect how people have babies and the increasing control we can exert over the outcome.
By awarding the Nobel Prize to Robert Edwards, the committee is not so much rewarding the fundamental science as it is signaling the importance of science with practical applications that benefit humanity. It’s also rewarding taking risks. IVF was difficult to develop, not so much because the research broke new ground, but because there was so much resistance to the idea. Funding was hard to get. Professional opinion was largely negative. That Edwards persevered, successfully completed the research, and was finally vindicated – that seems to be the point of the Nobel Prize.
This year’s Nobel Prize for Physics goes to two young men from Russia. The senior partner in the work done at the University of Nijmegen (Netherlands) and the University of Manchester (UK), is Andre Geim, 51. The other partner, Konstantin Novoselov is 36, the youngest Nobelist ever. Their achievement? They made it practical to work with a material known as graphene, tiny sheets of pure carbon only 1 atom thick and their seminal papers in 2004 and 2005 opened what can now be called the floodgates of graphene research.
This is the realm of nanotechnology, and in this realm it’s beginning to look like graphene will be one of the most important discoveries. It’s a common material – carbon – with some highly unusual and largely unexpected properties. Graphene is the thinnest material in the world, yet one of the strongest. It conducts electricity better than copper. It is the best known conductor of heat. It has yielded some surprising behavior, especially in quantum physics, where its unique configuration, single atoms arranged in hexagonal pattern like a bee’s honeycomb, produces wave-like properties instead of the usual action/reaction (billiard ball bounce) of classical physics.
To their chagrin, Geim and Novoselov will probably always be remembered as the practitioners of the ‘Scotch tape technique.’ To research graphene, they needed to produce the ultra-thin layers of carbon. Graphite, also pure carbon but in another configuration, was an obvious source but the partners couldn’t find a way to shave off the layers. One day a lab technician demonstrated how graphite was cleaned before examining it under a scanning tunneling microscope by stripping off layers with Scotch tape. Geim and Novoselov realized, in what has to be a kind of Eureka! Moment, that the layers sticking to the Scotch tape were graphene.
In a quirky way, beginning with this rather mundane procedure, a surprising new world of science and technology is arising. Worthy of a Nobel? Absolutely, in the thinking of the Nobel committee. Great science need not result from mountains of mathematics or billion dollar equipment. Simple necessity can be the mother of humble inventions with powerful futures.
[SciTechStory recent coverage of advances in graphene research:
Graphene: Diverse advances (09-11-2010)
Stretch graphene, europium titante – get interesting results (08-22-2010)
Graphene oxide: Nanotechnology with an eco-friendly end (07-23-2010)
Graphene in a communications context (04-11-2010)
Progress toward graphene solar cells (04-10-2010)
Graphene transistors (02-05-2010)
Big news for nanoscale graphene (01-20-2010)