Nobel laureate: Life sciences suited to small countries

Prof. Andre Geim, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics speaks at International Nanotechnology Conference and Exhibition in Tel Aviv.

November 20, 2010 22:20
4 minute read.

Shimon Peres and PROF. ANDRE GEIM 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Prof. Andre Geim, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics last month, is still trying to digest it. “I have little experience in this, so I researched what happened to winners who preceded me,” he told Globes during a recent visit to Israel.

“Some of them became egomaniacs, while others drowned in hard work in an effort to prove that the prize wasn’t given to them by mistake,” he said. “I hope to fall somewhere between the extremes. I didn’t expect the prize and I didn’t try to win it, but when I won it, I realized that it’s worth a lot to people. I know that I’ve become a pretty face for good causes, and that’s fine with me.”

Geim, 36, spoke at the International Nanotechnology Conference and Exhibition in Tel Aviv, in which he participated.

As for his decision to come to Israel, he said: “My mother’s grandmother was Jewish. I suffered from anti- Semitism in Russia because my name sounds Jewish, so I identify with you. Nonetheless, I don’t divide the world by religions or countries, but by stupid people and slightly lessstupid people, and I hope that I am numbered among the second group. Israel has several cultural characteristics which result in an especially high proportion of the less-stupid people.”

Globes: What can Israel do to keep this status?
Geim: “Israel is in an excellent position in terms of science. It is first or second in the world in terms of leading scientists in their fields as a proportion of the size of the population. In terms of applied science, I don’t believe that another Intel will emerge here, or that Israel will create a company like Boeing.

“On the other hand, the life sciences are more suited for a small to mid-sized country because this is a relatively new science in terms of true understanding of the mechanisms operating at its base. The main thing is not to do what they did in Europe. The EU sank science under bureaucracy as part of government support plans.”

What can be done against the brain drain?
“You won’t like my answer.

Science isn’t football, and a scientist isn’t a player on a team, but a worker for all of humanity. The brain drain shouldn’t be stopped, but free movement should be allowed.”

How can teenagers be encouraged to pursue careers in science?
“It begins with the parents: whether they encourage unconventional thinking and unconventional knowledge, or push the child to get rich. When I studied in the US, students complained about my course, so I lowered the level and suddenly they all loved me. Consumerbased education does not create excellence.”

You’ve worked in several fields during your life. What would you tell a university researcher to focus on?
“It’s impossible to do worthwhile research in less than three to five years. On the other hand, the current conditions in which a person gets a post-doctorate topic and works on variations of it until retirement are unacceptable. Funds that support science don’t like a researcher to change fields, but it’s critical to achieve something interesting. It has to be done during the night hours, kept hidden, on the basis of previous grants.”

Geim is best known for his work on graphene, which are carbon sheets one molecule thick that have incredible qualities of strength, conductivity and transparency.

“Graphene can be used for effective and cheap sequencing of the genome,” he told Globes.

“It’s possible to read the sequence of the DNA molecule by putting it through an electrical field.

“Until now, no material could be found that could create the thin gap between the two sides of the field that would let just one molecule get through. Graphene makes this possible, and it will make it possible to determine the genetic composition of each and every one of us for just $10 in less than a decade. Then we’ll know what each of us will die of.”

“In computing, there’s a lot of talk of graphene as a replacement for silicon, but that’s in the distant future,” Geim said. “In the next few years, we’ll see graphene as a component of touch screens, instead of rare and expensive materials. It’s already possible to find graphene as a component in conductive ink and in electron microscopes. Another interesting field is communications. Graphene can make terahertz frequencies tangible. Until now no one knew how to use them.”

Geim has also won an IgNobel Prize for his work on using magnets to levitate a frog.

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