Graphene gets a Nobel

It’s Nobel Prize week! The Academy Awards of Science! And literature and peace, too, I suppose. But science!

(Selfishly: I also figure it’s a good time to get back in the blogging habit. Keeping up with each new announcement is a pretty good incentive to write posts.)

So the Medicine Prize was announced the other day, going to Robert Edwards for figuring out in vitro fertilization. Hooray! Awesome science, society-changing effects, the whole shebang. And the people rejoiced! Except, to no one’s surprise, The Vatican, who was not amused.

But much more interesting to me is this morning’s announcement of the Physics Prize, going to Andre Greim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene.

Let me first preface the rest of this post by saying that I am not trained as a physicist. I don’t read too many of the nitty-gritty physics journals. Take any of my assessments with a grain of salt.

So, first things first. Paraphrasing the immortal Insane Clown Posse (not safe for work): Graphene…how does it work? Graphene is essentially a flat, sheet-like, atomically thin molecule made up of a bunch of interconnected carbon.

It’s cool because of the way the atoms are bonded and arranged. Without getting too into specifics, this arrangement makes the sheets electronically active (ie, conductive and semiconductive, depending how you make them) and really strong (like really really strong). Because of those properties, for the last couple of years researchers have been working on incorporating graphene into plastic to make super-strong composites and into flexible, transparent electronics. More recently, a group stuck it in a magnetic field and did some neat tricks with it. Because it’s electronically active, the molecular sheets respond to magnetic and electric fields. With imagery screaming for lightning storms and mad scientist hairdos, these guys were able to use manipulate those fields to levitate graphene and spin it ridiculously fast. Like, fast enough to subject it to forces 4 million times the force of gravity (for reference, pilots doing Top Gun-esque tricks rarely experience more than 8 or 9 times the force of gravity). That’s enough force to rip practically anything we know apart. But graphene held strong. Cool beans.

But really, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Graphene’s a neat trick, but to my untrained eyes, that’s all it is right now. A neat laboratory trick. Yeah, you can spin it fast. Yeah, it’s pretty strong. But is it really enough for a Nobel when there’s so much cooler stuff going in physics? It’s some really cool fundamental science, for sure. But no one has made graphene step over that line yet from lab curiosity to real-world, high impact science.

So what else has physics got? How about that new Goldilocks planet? Sure, Bad Astronomy was much more realistic on the probability of life there than I was, but it’s still ridiculously important. We found a planet, roughly our size, across billions of miles of space, that could conceivably support life. Like Phil at Bad Astronmy explains, that says a lot about our ability to find planets and the high likelihood of tons of those sorts of planets out there. Will we be talking about graphene decades from now? Will it be one of mankind’s great scientific achievements? We don’t know. Might be. We’ll have to wait and see. But will we still be talking about finding other potentially life-bearing planets generations from now? I think that’s pretty likely. I know its discovery probably occurred after whatever deadline the Nobel Committee had, but that alone makes it seem such a better choice.

Or how about the LHC? Yeah, it’s offline more than it’s online, I’ll concede that. And I’ll also concede that not a whole lot has come out of it yet. But in terms of making the general population interested in science? There hasn’t been any pure research pursuit in the past decade that has generated more chatter than the LHC. It may not work perfectly even now, but it’s gotten people talking (even if they’re talking about black holes and conspiracy theories). Second only to climate change, I would put my money on the fact that it’s easily the second most-talked about scientific enterprise among non-scientists. That’s pretty huge. If that doesn’t get you a Nobel (who the award would actually go to is another question entirely), what does?

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