11 October 2015
If you could travel back in time to meet anyone, who would you go and see and above all what would you ask them?
The past is littered with great inventors, industrialists, musicians, poets and artists; where would you start?
Edison, Einstein, Wilfred Owen, DaVinci, Vallette, the list could go on for hours!
Its easy to look into the past and marvel about the greats who have been before who shaped the way we live and work today, but what about the people around us today. If someone in the future was given that same opportunity, to travel back in time are there people in our midst today that are changing the world.
Its easy to underestimate the talent around us as the full impact of their work is still yet to unfold.
This weekend I got an invitation to a game of rugby, at Manchester City’s Stadium. It’s not an event people in the future would be wasting a golden ticket to the past to watch, but true to the philosophy that if you “say yes to everything you and will have a much more interesting life” I got a really pleasant surprise when invited by Tom Bloxham to England vs Uruguay match.
As a Welshman it’s not a first choice match, but as a true Brit, I do enjoy bellowing out our National Anthem with another 60,000 passionate people.
As we approached the ground, Tom’s wife explained that Kostya was none other than Professor and Sir Kostya Novoselov who discovered Graphene with fellow scientist Sir Andre Geim. Whilst I couldn’t guarantee the rugby would be gripping, I knew I had some questions already on the tip of my tongue.
I have always been fascinated by people and I continue to look for similarities in personality traits that span successful athletes, business people, musicians, actors and so on. There are commonalities which make special people who they are.
So sitting down with Kostya I couldn’t help asking, “So how on earth do you discover something like Graphene?”
Like the majority of incredibly successful people I have met, he very humbly said, “There was a lot of luck involved,” but he continued, “we were looking for something that technically couldn’t exist. A single layer of carbon.”
He explained that it had been named years earlier as a theoretical substance, but there was no way of extracting a single layer from the graphite.
One ordinary Friday, Kostya and his friend and fellow scientist Andre removed some flakes from a lump of bulk graphite with something as simple as sticky tape. They noticed some flakes were thinner than others. By separating the graphite fragments repeatedly they managed to create flakes which were just one atom thick. They had isolated graphene for the first time.
Kostya said, “When you find something that doesn’t look right, you don’t discard it.” It was from one of these chance experiments, that Graphene was born.
Six years after their groundbreaking isolation of graphene, Andre and Kostya were rightly awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics for their work, becoming the 24th and 25th Nobel Laureates in the University’s history.
On the same day they received their award, they were back in their lab, continuing to unveil new and exciting properties in graphene and other related two-dimensional crystal materials.
It’s this inquisitive nature and obsessive determination I keep seeing over and over again in people who push boundaries.
They are never inspired by money or recognition, there is a deeper burning desire to create something lasting, something special and ultimately do something that has never been done before.
Kostya’s comment reminded me of Edison’s famous quote “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
It’s hard to imagine the passion and determination to keep going on a voyage of discovery hour after hour, day after day, especially looking for something that seemed impossible to exist.
What is interesting is Kostya is Russian, but he calls Manchester his home now. Britain may not have the best rugby teams in the world, (although we have yet to see how Scotland, Ireland and Wales do) but we are clearly creating a fantastic incubation space for science.
The University of Manchester in particular deserves special commendation encouraging, driving and supporting work of this nature.
So what are you going to do in your lifetime to change the world? Its pretty hard to follow that one! But each and everyone plays a part. It may be you, it may equally and just as importantly be one of your children or grandchildren who affects and shapes history. This is why getting education right, has to be the single most important thing for all of us to focus on.
So whist global leaders argue over blowing up cities, shouldn’t we really be waging war on cancer, poverty, hunger and investing our energy and science in the search for cures and a better way to live together.
We have all the technology to make the world work far smarter and we have all the food to feed avery single person.
Imagine if politicians got as focussed as Kostya, and stepped back for a second to see the long term impact of what they are doing. Then, and only then might they be remembered for doing great things.
It maybe a pipe dream, but one day it will happen.
There is an extraordinary world out there for all of us to discover, right on our doorstep.
Whatever you do, don’t miss a second.
Have a great week ahead!