Konstantin Novoselov: Neliti Face of Science 006

Neliti’s 6th Face of Science is the “God of Graphene” – a Nobel physicist whose insatiability to expand the borders of human knowledge lead to the discovery of the world’s strongest known material and changed the world forever.

Neliti’s 6th Face of Science is the “God of Graphene” – a Nobel physicist whose insatiability to expand the borders of human knowledge lead to the discovery of the world’s strongest known material and changed the world forever.

Rendition of Konstantin Novoselov by Lukas Kutschera

Foreword

It’s a sunny November morning at the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials at the National University of Singapore. In a small office on the ninth floor, half-completed traditional Chinese artwork and its painting apparatus are splayed across a table to the left. Three dumbbells, each about 30 kg, lay on the floor in the middle of the room. Close to a large window overlooking a sprawling Asian metropolis lie pictures of some of history’s great leaders – Lenin, Stalin and Mao – framed in traditional Chinese red paper. There are no particularly prestigious awards or achievements on display.

This is the office of a man who clearly derives inspiration from, and is well versed across, the softer sciences: history, philosophy and the arts. 

Beneath the main working table lie two feet slipped, rather casually, into traditional Russian Malevich-styled shoes. They are the feet of Konstantin Novoselov – known more colloquially as ‘Kostya’ – the man who, along with his colleague Andre Geim, discovered graphene, caused a paradigm shift in materials science, and, more broadly, changed the world forever.

On first impression, Kostya is a man who has a very to-the-point, matter-of-factness about him. Conversationally, he speaks sparingly, with minimal indulgence for small talk. But when he does talk, almost always with words of purpose that incite curiosity or inspiration, it feels like a kind of gospel of the utmost percipience.

This was never more pertinent than his reply to my questions about his Chinese art endeavours. I raised with him the age-old art versus science debate and asked whether art plays a role in science, to which he replied, “Art and science both study something that has not even become a concept in our minds yet. They are both an attempt to explore the unknown.”

Konstantin Novoselov is the 6th Neliti Face of Science, and we are honoured to be given the opportunity to share his story.

– Anton Lucanus, Founder of Neliti

The God of Graphene

When the Ancient Greeks mythicised the existence of various Gods, they attributed almost all natural phenomena to their mystical powers. Zeus, the most well known, was the God of the Sky and was the father of gods and humans. Poseidon was the God of the Sea, Aphrodite of Love and Hades of the Underworld. They even had a God of Wine, Dionysus. The Gods were involved in all aspects of human life and explained the existence of everything and anything.

However, because their knowledge of the world was limited, the Greeks never found Gods for some of the more recently discovered natural phenomena – say, electricity, for example.

It’s no wonder why there was never a God of Graphene. In fact, even up to the year 2004, the existence of such a God couldn’t possibly be fathomed, simply because graphene hadn’t been discovered yet. Graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice, was only possible in theory, but had never been found in reality.

Enter Russian-born British physicist, Konstantin Novoselov who, together with his colleague Andre Geim, became the figurative Gods of Graphene for their discovery of what is now the world’s strongest known material.

Their discovery earned them the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010, and ignited a windstorm of downstream innovations that exploit graphene’s unique properties, fundamentally disrupting the fields of medicine (tissue engineering, contrast agents, bioimaging, PCR, drug delivery), electronics (transistors, frequency multipliers), energy (generation, storage and transmission), and more. Graphene’s applications are endless and boundaryless, and therefore so is Novoselov’s impact on the world.

When a human being becomes a legend in his own lifetime, the possibilities of going beyond their initial achievements are endless. As the 31st U.S. President, Herbert Hoover once said, “New discoveries in science and their flow of new inventions will continue to create a thousand new frontiers for those who still would adventure.”

This perspective fits so well when describing Kostya. His fascination with metals and technology most likely originated in his childhood, as he grew up in the fairly large industrial city of Nizhni Tagnil, in Russia’s Ural Mountains.  

Kostya’s birth, childhood and leisure pursuits

Kostya was born in August 1974, and grew up in the Dzerzhinsky District, popularly known as Vagonka, which literally means “train carriage.” At the heart of the community was the all-encompassing local factory that produced tanks and train cars. Known among locals as “The Factory,” it was an institution that dominated community life.

Kostya said, during an interview with Neliti, “We had a very monotonous life, and our whole life was controlled by the alarms that rang at different times of the day.” 

The alarms, in fact, were a vibrant part of his earliest memories. “Every morning there would be a whistle loud enough to wake people several miles away at 7.00 am, two at 7.30 am to get people out of their homes, three at 8.00 am as a signal to start working and another at 4.30 pm when the workers could go home.”

This regimented way of life no doubt inculcated a commitment to disciplined work in Kostya’s young, impressionable mind. But it also seeded a desire to immerse himself in technology, because the people he saw on a daily basis, working at the factory, were “reasonably high-tech.” The Nizhni Tagil area was a kind of breeding ground for Russian innovators; it was the home of industrial engineer Yefim Cherepanov, who built Russia’s first steam locomotive, and Boris Rauschenbach, a pioneering rocket engineer who created space vehicle control systems.

As Kostya remembers, “The factory was a huge place where everyone knew everyone else, and was reasonably high-tech and the largest producer of Russian tanks, even the ones currently being used in Ukraine.”

Editor’s note: Novoselov is against the Ukraine war and was one of the first of more than 4100 Russian scientists to sign an open letter protesting against the war in Ukraine.

Kostya also has personal connections to the factory, albeit not always necessarily pleasant. His grandfather, Gleb Komarov, who was a tank test-driver at the factory, lost his legs in a tank accident in 1944.

Nevertheless, his memories are still vibrantly alive. He has images of “the tall engineers who worked there… Their ability to design and produce amazing machines seemed absolutely normal. So, this kind of life seemed absolutely normal to me.”

The community was saturated with highly-skilled engineers and technicians. Thus, since his young days, Kostya was in the midst of experts in technology. And it was quite natural that his leisure-time pursuits were also technical. He was into carting, especially because his father had a passion for auto-sports. He was fascinated by daring race car drivers whizzing past him in powerful vehicles, performing incredible stunts on the race tracks.

With his absorption in the performance of automobiles, Kostya soon got engrossed in manually producing and modifying car parts. This paved the way for him to engage in lathing, milling and welding; skills which he used and calibrated during summer jobs at the factory.  

In the days of the Soviet Union, people were adept at manually producing different appliances and accessories. In the same vein, Kostya too attempted his hand at creativity.  He says, “‘I was doing some crazy stuff at home… trying to make gunpowder, melting metals.”

Moreover, Kostya was a rather lonely child, with both parents working full-time and a seven-year younger sister, Elena, still in the nursery, and not old enough to make a closer companion.

He had a technically-oriented fascination, and he used up the few hours he had to himself every day after school, to engage in “research” in the home kitchen laboratory, immersing himself in experimenting with gunpowder recipes or casting metals, then hurriedly cleaning up the mess in the kitchen before his mother showed up home after work.

One thing stood out, though. Since early on, Kostya had a technical and scientific perspective on things. When his father presented him an expensive German model railway set at the age of eight, what intrigued him more than the carriages was the variable DC power source, which proved useful for different experiments, from electrolysis to constructing electromagnets. He says, “I have always enjoyed doing things with my own hands.”

Family, school life and beyond

Although Kostya’s parents were not scientists, his father, Sergey Novoselov, was an engineer who worked at the local factory. His mother, Tatiana Novoselova, was an English teacher at the Nizhny Tagil school No. 39, where Kostya studied, and where his grandfather, Viktor Konstantinovich, was the director. Kostya’s mother tried hard to teach her son spoken English, but could not accomplish the task. Kostya said, “In spite of all her efforts, I only started to speak, not even proper, but any English, after I moved to the Netherlands.”

Despite this, he says “My parents were very helpful and very supportive for a long time. They gave the exactly right proportion of guidance without over-guiding. I am very grateful for their help.”

Kostya, in fact, considers himself very lucky, for not only did he get encouragement from his parents, but also from his teachers. He was helped in this, to a large extent, by the scientific aptitude he manifested in school. He says, “As far as I remember, I was quite keen at doing something technical.”

But Kostya also enjoyed the written word. He was a big fan of Martin Gardner, a popular American math and science writer, who wrote math articles, blending them with scientific scepticism, micro magic, philosophy, religion and literature. He was especially fond of the writings of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum and G.K. Chesterton. These books and the Quantum Magazine of Math and Science, as well as books authored by Pasternak, Pushkin, Jack London, H.G. Wells and Mark Twain, enthralled Kostya, and he couldn’t keep them down once he started them. He says, “I was always fascinated by the independent minds of people.” He voraciously read many biographies of scientists like Rutherford and Einstein.

As he graduated to the higher grades in school, he did not need to rely so heavily on his home kitchen for experiments. In fact, his passion to engage in intriguing experiments was fully supported by his physics teacher, Ljudmila Rastorgueva, who permitted him extra use of the equipment in the physics laboratory. Rastorgueva, together with his math teachers Ljudmila Bashmakova and Valentina Filippova, encouraged him to participate in physics and math Olympiads at different levels. Kostya came first in the Sverdlovsk Regional Physics Olympiad, as a sixth grader, in 1990 and 1991, and placed top ten in the All-Union Olympiads in physics and mathematics.

Kostya also widened his horizons while in high school, through an introduction to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Phystech). During his remote learning sessions, the teachers sent him problems to solve, and he returned his responses to them. He said, “That way, they hand-picked their students.”

Life at Phystech: Discovering a passion for the unknown

Consequently, entering Phystech in 1991 was more or less a cakewalk for Kostya. He opted to study at the Faculty of Physical and Quantum Electronics, where the curriculum he had was “quite intense.” In the third year, particularly, there were occasions he spent ten hours without a break at lectures, tutorials and research labs. He says, “[I] experienced an amazing and bizarre combination of the highest standards of education and rather tough living conditions.” He felt “privileged and extremely proud” to study at Phystech, for he was aware that all the course work was prepared by actively-working, highly recognised scientists of the day.

As he listened to the experiences and perspectives of Phystech’s academics, it gradually dawned on him how unexplored the field of science was. He says, “When you learn at the University, you feel that everything is already done, and you lose your motivation. Then you understand while some areas are researched and understood, there are many interesting areas that are still unexplored.”

Yet, the prevalent understanding was that studying science is to learn something already known. 

But the ground reality Kostya found could not have been more to the contrary. He says, “[You] cannot even see the definition of what you need to explore in science – because science includes things which are not even known yet. You have no way to know the frontiers. You can only learn from experience and from how other people do it.”

As Kostya found out soon enough, the Phystech student community was friendly and close-knit. They were mutually supportive during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the ensuing chaos. Despite that, their students forged ahead, and the camaraderie was memorable. For instance, Kostya remembers the regular blackouts, especially during cold winters, when they got through the long dark evenings by enjoying literature. He remembers how one fellow student, Sasha Zhuromskii, read to the group from the fantasy works of English writer J.R.R. Tolkien, burning the last candle they had, as they huddled together on the campus hostel’s narrow bunk beds.

Kostya and his college mates also found classical entertainment through regular visits to the Bolshoi Theatre. Short of cash, they still managed to enjoy high-quality theatre, by offering their services as claquers, or paid applauders, during performances.  

As a youth growing up amidst political turbulence, Kostya remembers the many political avenues that seduced young, impressionable minds. He participated in the failed coup of October 1993, in Moscow. He says, “I still feel lucky that they refused to give me a gun, despite my strong insistence.” The incident jolted him into awareness of how unproductive political involvement was. “As a consequence, I decided that my revolutions would be in physics, definitely not politics – in fact I decided to stay as far away as possible from any politics at all.”

Business or science?

At the crossroads of his future, Kostya decided to briefly experiment with a profession outside of science. Thus, during his time at Phystech, especially during the summer breaks, he decided to engage quite extensively with a construction company. It brought him good money, he built new relationships and, above all, enjoyed the fun and challenge of learning a new profession.

But it did not take long for boredom to set in, and he began to doubt the wisdom of venturing into a business. When it came down to a choice between science and business, he naturally chose science, as there was no possibility of engaging in “part-time science.” 

The life-changing opportunity to work with Andre Geim

From 1997 until 1999, Kostya was a PhD student at Chernogolovka’s Institute of Microelectronics Technology, when he was offered an extraordinary opportunity to work with British-Dutch physicist, Andre Geim, at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “Andre already had a reputation for being an innovative and creative experimentalist, so I didn’t think twice,” said Kostya when reflecting on his first encounter with his former colleague.

In the first few months of the spring of 1999, he had to go through a period of probation at Radboud University, where, to his utter consternation, he goofed up twice, unforgivably, or so he thought. He forgot to close the lid of the helium dewar, and misspelled a critical word in an email from Andre to a journalist, writing “u” instead of “a” in “last opportunity.”

Despite these glitches, in August 1999, Kostya was invited by Geim to start his PhD in a high magnetic field laboratory. With Geim as his advisor and mentor, Kostya received a doctoral degree from Radboud in 2004.

However, Geim relocated to the University of Manchester in UK, and invited Kostya to join him there.

“I didn’t hesitate for a moment when he invited me to join him, even though it meant leaving my PhD unfinished for the second time in a row.”

Geim’s perspective was, “I don’t make much distinction between whether you’re a PhD student or whether you’re a full professor. As long as you work hard and you work efficiently, all people are colleagues.”

So it was that Kostya became a postdoctoral physics researcher at the University of Manchester, and arrived in the UK to an empty office, which had to be converted into a lab. He said wryly, “It was my third lab in less than three years and a different experience again: everything had to be built from scratch… but this did allow for plenty of fun as everything was bespoke to our specific requirements.”

It appeared that Geim’s perspective on work and research style played a large role in the duo’s earth-shattering discovery of graphene in 2004. Kostya observed the different work styles of scientists. Some continue studying a single subject throughout their professional lives, which was once given by their supervisors during their PhD. “But, for me, it’s very boring to deal with the same subject year after year. So, whenever we are doing any particular research, at the same time I’m looking [for] what else can be done, using the facilities and knowledge we have at hand.”

Discovery of graphene

This perspective is what led to his groundbreaking discovery of graphene.

Kostya reflects, “Many discoveries are accidental, but to make it happen you really need to work hard at it. You work hard on this accident to happen. And if you don’t, you will not achieve what you want.”

So, in the lab that Geim and Kostya established to do research outside their mainstream job, one day in 2004, they decided to embark on a novel assignment. “One of our projects, initiated by Andre, was an attempt to make a metallic field effect transistor. The choice of material, quite naturally, fell to graphite, mostly due to its low carrier concentration.” They felt it was “a reasonable idea.”

At the beginning, they felt for sure that it would not be possible to produce graphene. Graphene, a single layer a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice, was only possible in theory, but had never been isolated in reality. They were instead trying to extract very thin flakes from graphite, which would be suitable for the demonstration of a transistor effect. 

It was, without doubt, very frustrating, to try out different approaches of extricating graphene from graphite, only to end in failure. He said, “[We] were almost about to abort our efforts because we already had an interesting project going on.”

The solution came unexpectedly. Kostya had seen how other projects that used graphite as a resource cleaved it with Scotch tape before the project. So he set about cleaving the graphite with Scotch tape. “I decided we should not throw the Scotch tape after cleaning the graphite, but play with it.”

This turned into a life-changing situation for Geim and Kostya, as they were able to obtain a one-atom thick graphene film from graphite, in laboratory conditions, for the first time in history.

Kostya said that in the end, isolating graphene required, “a bit of curiosity, a bit of luck.” Indeed, when Geim and Kostya won the Nobel Prize in 2010, the Nobel Committee highlighted the fact that “playfulness” was a distinct hallmark of the way they worked together.

On Graphene itself, Kostya observes that “Graphene is a fascinating and interesting material. Even now we find very interesting physics and chemistry in this material.” 

It is with good reason that graphene is known as “the wonder material” of the world. This one-atom thick sheet of hexagonal lattice-shaped carbon, is extraordinarily strong and is considered the thinnest material in the world, being a million times thinner than a sheet of paper. It is two-dimensional, incredibly lightweight and the best known conductor of electricity and heat. Although nearly fully transparent, it is unbelievably dense, and even a helium atom, the smallest of atoms in existence, cannot pass through graphene carbon holes. It can be stretched up to 10% of its normal size, and can be bent without damage up to 20%. It is non-polluting, non-rusting and does not react with oxygen in the air.

These unique qualities of graphene have led scientists to keep on finding new uses for the material. It has transformed numerous industries, from energy to electronics, from biomedicine to aerospace. While being ideal for touch screens and solar cells, it may even overtake silicon in the manufacturing of next generation computer chips.

It is no wonder then that the global graphene market, which was valued at USD 270 million in 2021, is expected to grow to USD 337 million in 2022, and bloat to a whopping USD 2.2 billion by 2029.

EPS Prize, Nobel Prize, knighthood and international recognition

Meanwhile, interest in the hitherto unrecognized graphene spread like wildfire across the world. What the earth-shattering discovery could mean to the future of mankind was being reflected by the achievements bestowed by various professional bodies.

The European Physical Society (EPS) awarded the 2008 Europhysics Prize to Geim and Kostya, for “discovering and isolating a single free-standing atomic layer of carbon (graphene) and elucidating its remarkable electronic properties”.

Two years later, in 2010, in recognition of “groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Geim and Kostya the Nobel Prize in Physics. The citation said, “Experiments with graphene could lead to the development of new material and “the manufacture of innovative electronics, including faster computers.”

Kostya became the youngest Nobel laureate in Physics since 1971, and he was informed by the media that he was the youngest overall Nobel laureate, since 1992. When asked about whether he knew of these records, he said, “I don’t know, I never checked.” 

When asked by the media if he did anything exciting with his Nobel Prize money, he said, “I didn’t have time even to think about it.” But he did say that receiving the Nobel Prize was “life-changing,” “but not necessarily in a good way.” In fact, after becoming a Nobel Prize laureate, he was so overwhelmed by the volume of media interviews and appearances, that his work suffered. He says, “[I] couldn’t do any work at all.”

From Geim’s perspective, there are two “categories” of laureates – those who rest on their laurels, and those who accelerate their work and up the speed to challenge themselves even more. He sees Kostya as falling into the second category. From our time interviewing Kostya, it was clear that he certainly does – his dumbbells on the office floor are placed because he has no time to go to a commercial gym.

Recognition and accolades, nevertheless, kept sweeping across the world, enhancing the stature of the two physicists in the scientific world. They were also on the British royal radar, and in 2012, Geim and Kostya were presented with the 2012 Knight Bachelor award by the Queen of England, in honour of their ‘Services to Science, ’ as part of the 2012 New Year Honours. Kostya said, “This is a fantastic recognition and a great honour. It is pleasing to see that science is not completely separated from the state, and gaining the acknowledgement it deserves.”

Beyond graphene: What’s next for Novoselov?

With graphene gripping the imagination of the world, Kostya believes “there will be enough interest in physics for the next 20 years.” These days, the largest consumer of graphene is the battery industry.

Suddenly, he found the team of people working on graphene growing from three or four, to several hundreds, to thousands, to tens of thousands of people. And suddenly it seemed “scary” because there were so many opportunities for the use of graphene and so many directions available to choose. 

As such, Kostya felt that if he stayed in graphene, he would be doing graphene until it was time to hang his boots up and bid adieu to his career. More importantly, he realised that graphene is not alone. In fact, there are hundreds of two-dimensional materials in graphene’s family, each of them interesting in unique ways. He says, “You can combine individual crystals and create a different, more elaborate effect, like taking individual pages and compiling them into a book with a more elaborate plot.”

In other words, it gives physicists the opportunity to design and create a material with customised properties and functionalities, by pulling together 2-D materials to create 3-D structures.

This was, in fact, what Kostya and his team began doing until some years ago.

Then, the realization dawned that although graphene is “a very nice story, we have gone beyond graphene now.”

The conversation has now shifted to “functional and intelligent materials”. As he says, “Of recent times, we have started on designing different materials, and we are now onto the functionality of these artificial programmable materials.”

It became more complex and more difficult to choose, but exciting as well.

Intricate manipulation of atomically thin materials requires a skilled and patient researcher with manual dexterity. Although Kostya enjoyed working with his hands, as a PhD student, he watched how his professors were all more confident and skilled in handling materials than he was. He says, “So, as a form of training, I bought a cutthroat razor to shave with.”

After hours of patient practice with the razor, Kostya said, “my hands became steadier and I was able to perform the skillful actions required. I still shave with a cutthroat razor today.”

Now, with fewer opportunities for hands-on work, Kostya keeps his fingers nimble by following artistic pursuits like painting.

Why Singapore?

Kostya and his team had been working on many areas of graphene for many years. For their good fortune, the British government not only recognised the potential of graphene, but also allowed for the establishment of the National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester, where Kostya worked at the time. He says it was a challenging project, taking them three years to design and build. But, in the end, it was a classy, beautiful building to work in that also offered the best technology that existed.

But this also began to scare him. With graphene being so infinite and so appealing, what if he was never going to do anything beyond graphene? He said, “It was very difficult to suddenly stop and decide I wasn’t going to do graphene any more, when everyone around you and a hundred other people were doing graphene every day and getting very successful results with very interesting experiments.”

Escaping from this fearful sense of permanence was going to be very hard, and Kostya he knew he had to challenge himself and move somewhere else, “Or I could be in graphene for another 10, 20 years, until retirement.”

He needed a place which would offer an opportunity for blue sky research, but could also provide the necessary facilities within a short period of time.

Singapore, as it turns out, is a fantastic place for that. He had been to Singapore in 2009, and since 2015 had been an international scientific advisor to the National University of Singapore (NUS). With experience in that community, he realised he would have facilities to engage in research outside of graphene. 

As such, on April 8, 2019, Kostya joined NUS as Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, becoming the first Nobel Laureate to join a Singaporean University.

Kostya said, “I’m really excited by Singapore’s strong focus on research and exploration. I have seen first-hand the passion, resilience and spirit of innovation of the University’s talented researchers, particularly in the multidisciplinary area of materials science.” Thus, the idea of relocating to Singapore “was a nice opportunity.”

The new research direction Kostya was contemplating would be delving deeper into cutting-edge smart materials. As he explained, “People know me as the graphene researcher, but I would like to expand further. What graphene and other 2D materials taught us is that you can create artificial materials which are designed atom by atom for specific purposes.”

Thus, the new opportunities that he could engage with outside of graphene were ultimately what pushed him to relocate from Manchester University to NUS. “I wanted to take my research in a new direction, and I needed a place that would offer me a good start. Singapore has an established and dynamic scientific community, with NUS offering strong collaboration opportunities from multidisciplinary backgrounds.”

And although he understood the pain of living in isolation, his work was taking up much of his personal and family time. So, he bought dumbbells and placed them in strategic locations in his office, lab and home, for a little bit of exercise when walking around. They beckoned him when he needed to release the tension of long, grueling hours at the computer. Or, he would stare at a blank white page, or do some painting – to tune himself to the right mindset to think productively.

The artistic scientist

Kostya, the consummate scientist, is also an accomplished artist, strange as it may sound. Yet, it does not sound strange to Kostya. He says, “Art and science both study something that doesn’t exist, and always try to explore the unknown.” And for him, one needs to tune the brain to get into this unknown. He says, “And I didn’t realize this before I started to do art.”

He believes that art is the same as science, and if a person can get the mind into the right state, it will enable the person to get through the last frontier onto the next level.

For instance, in science, he says, “I get my ideas in my sleep, in my dreams, when I wake up, I jump into action.” He believes in the art of science.

On the other hand, he sometimes has the urge to sit down and paint something. And when he is in that totally creative mood, he will continue painting until he is done, “because the next day, you may not be able to do anything.” 

Chinese art – the focus of Kostya’s artistic endeavours – especially, requires continuation of the thought process and thoroughness of inspiration. He says, “You have to finish the painting in one go, while you are in the same mind set.” That is the science of art.

The truth is that Kostya had always been strangely drawn to painting. He says, “I always felt I could; yet I was stalling myself, probably thinking I lack[ed] talent, and doing something for no special reason was not good enough.”

Also, as his mother firmly believed that Kostya and his sister should never be forced into learning, but rather persuaded into, they never studied in music or art schools.

He wanted to communicate his scientific ideas to the public through drawings, and was in the habit of illustrating his own research papers, and something in him involuntarily gravitated toward art and drawing. “The main product of a scientist is a paper… And any paper always calls for illustrations, since it’s the easiest way to communicate something to people. I was always making these illustrations myself. I enjoyed painting to make it beautiful, clear and easily understandable. I held back this passion to some extent, but, at some point, I just began to paint.”

Nevertheless, he admitted he chose Chinese art because he had limited time and effort to engage in it, and also, Chinese art allowed him to paint, not from real life, but to express his feelings.

Kostya’s interest in Chinese traditional drawing was stimulated in 2015 following a formal lesson in Chinese art as a visiting scholar at Xiamen University in China, under the auspices of calligrapher and art professorZheng Shenglong. He says, “I was lucky enough to be trained in traditional Chinese painting by a prominent Chinese artist.”

As he began painting in earnest, his initial paintings were on traditional objects like bamboo, orchids, lotuses and cherry blossoms, and landscapes. As he continued to move forward, he began to use the same techniques to paint other objects, with his mentor’s blessings. As Kostya explained, “He understood that it doesn’t matter what you paint, it’s how well you transfer the mood to the painting that’s important.”

In fact, Kostya was enchanted by the elegance, and the crisp eloquence of Chinese art. He began engaging with the reductionism approach, seeking to use the most basic forms to generate the same basic emotions in the minds of the artist and the spectator.

Kostya was also tantalized by myriad patterns that Chinese ink created on water surfaces. Through experimenting with these inks, he deliberately created patterns, thus developing a technique to paint on the surface of the water. These paintings looked more like photographs. And just as a photographer bides his time for the perfect shot, Kostya waits patiently for the inks to get distributed evenly before transferring them onto rice paper.

Subsequently, Kostya also used graphene inks and inks from other two-dimensional materials, to create patterns.

Love, marriage and family

Love and romance find their way even into the busiest of lives, as Kostya realised later. He was working in the lab in the Netherlands in 1999, his mind totally on the scientific research he was engaged in. He recounts how the project was consuming heavy amounts of electricity, and, therefore, it was cheaper to work at night.

As he worked long hours at the dead of night, he would see off and on, a young female student on the same floor who worked in biology, and who too worked late into the night. Despite his deep concentration on his research, images of this young woman would steal into his mind and distract him momentarily. He found it all strangely disturbing.

Then, one night, he came across a Russian-English dictionary she had left behind on a table in the coffee-room they shared. As fate would have it, she was from his motherland and was also beginning her journey to English fluency. Returning the book to her was a natural start to a sweet romance. Her name was Irina Barbolina, and was a scientist in agricultural microbiology at the time. Today, she is a senior microbiologist and a research consultant in healthcare, medical devices, and technology, with over 20 years of experience in the field.

As the romance began zooming toward the stars, suddenly it got suspended in mid-air, as Kostya left the Netherlands to join Geim in Manchester.

Hard at work in Manchester, Kostya, nevertheless, used his persuasive powers to convince Irina to marry him, and he proposed to her over the phone. And so she joined him in Manchester, and they tied the knot. They are both dual citizens of Russia and the UK.

Now, married for about 20 years, they have two teenage daughters, Sophia and Victoria.

Personal thoughts and perspectives

Whilst the Nobel prize is often seen as the crowning achievement of any scientist’s career, Prof Novoselov remains grounded and modest about the award.

“Of course, winning a Nobel prize is special in the career of any scientist, but honestly, I’m the same person as before. Being a prize-winner doesn’t make you 100 times smarter, but people certainly listen to you for a change,” he joked.

Aren’t you annoyed with always being introduced as an artist and Nobel laureate in physics? And you also are a knight.

“Yes, and it’s a double because I was knighted in Holland too. It jars on my ears a little. For example, Kate Daudy had a service in St Paul’s Cathedral in London to honour her refugee support efforts. I delivered a sermon, and one of the clerics was naming everyone else in a common manner but called me Sir Konstantin. I tried to explain to him that a simple “Kostya” would do, or even simpler, Costa, like the coffee brand. But he insisted and named me Sir Costa. So, Kate had to intervene and ask him to not “sir” me anymore, and just call me Kostya.”

Human history is popularly categorised based on man’s mastery over materials, such as the Age of Bronze or Age of Steel.

Kostya sees this as man’s limitation “in creating new things,” and “shows how limited we are in ingenuity and imagination.”

He says, Over the past few decades, we have moved towards composite materials through which we can implement new functionalities, which is fantastic. It shows material science has started to be a “real science” and not an arts and craft – and we need to sustain that for the future.”

Kostya’s thoughts on human intelligence and the extent of available knowledge.

“[I am] always fascinated by the independent minds of people. I have read many biographies of scientists like Rutherford and Einstein.”

“I was also influenced by the brilliant mind of Andre Geim, with whom I worked for six years at the University, and spent half the time listening to leading scientists at the Academy of Science. Listening to them, I understood how unexplored the field of science is. When you learn at the university, you feel that everything is already done, and you lose your motivation. Then you[begin to understand while some areas are researched and understood, there are many interesting areas that are still unexplored.”

“But what you need to be taught is not just physics, but research [together with] science, which is difficult to define and draw up. Studying science is supposed to be studying something that is not yet known, so you cannot even see the definition of what you need to explore in science. Science includes things which are not even known yet. So, you have no way to know the frontiers. You can only learn from experience and from how other people do it.”

From his vantage point, Kostya concludes

“The moral is that it is impossible to learn the spirit of science from a textbook or article. They may be able to teach us physics and chemistry and many other disciplines at university, but it is up to us to develop a gut feeling for how best to ‘do science’.”

“I am extremely lucky to have worked with and learned from Andre Geim, who is highly innovative and broad in his perspective but, at the same time, very truthful and critical of himself, with manic attention to details.”

“It is so easy to lose sight of the bigger picture underpinning the details or get carried away with your ‘beautiful theory’ and stop paying attention to the facts; Andre is a master of finding the narrow path between these extremes, and, if there is one thing I am proud of in my life, it is that I have learned a little of this style.”

The simple joy of discovery obviously fills him with exhilaration. “The best moments in life are when you come home from work and realize you’ve learned something new.”

How can scientists, and the intelligent functional materials you are developing, help to resolve some of the overwhelming problems the world faces today, like unsustainable energy consumption, food scarcity or even protecting against potential pandemics?

Kostya believes there is “a general misconception about science that its task is to solve the world’s challenges.” In his perspective, that is not the function of science. “Science expands the borders of our knowledge – full stop.”

He believes it is up to humanity to do what it will with the knowledge. “We can ignore it, as we have done in many cases which led to a number of those overwhelming problems. Or we can use it to make our life better, sustainable. Unfortunately, there is one more route: you can use science for self-destruction as well.”

As he explains, “Science provides the base on which we build our technology, but it is the whole combination of scientific knowledge that is used. What is more important for transistor operation: the Maxwell equations, the quantum mechanics, or the understanding of the properties of silicon? All of them in combination.”

Kostya also speaks of the next level of his research work, which is developing functional intelligent materials. “The primary achievement here is the expansion of the horizon of our knowledge – we will be able to apply those in many different fields.”

Those materials will enable the creation of “new technologies for energy applications, such as extraction of energy from the ambient environment, more efficient water purification, artificial organs, neuromorphic computing, and more.”

You have spoken of great surprises Nature has given in the process of scientific discovery. Can you name some? Do you believe there is any power that controls Nature? Or is Nature the supreme power?

Kostya believes that Nature lets humanity in on its secrets “when and if we are ready to handle those.” The knowledge of those secrets brings “power, but also comes with responsibilities.”

He believes that “We had those in the past, like fossil fuel and nuclear power. We are on the brink of new powers, like genome modification and understanding cognitive processes.”

And so, Kostya believes that the secrets of Nature “don’t belong to individuals but to 

humanity in general.”

Science and religion

While Kostya believes that science and religion are compatible, he says, “I am an irreligious man. The best way to define me would be agnostic.”

“I know a lot of scientists who have faith. Science may not have all the answers. It is very hard to predict whether we will one day obtain knowledge that answers all questions, including on morals, on life and death. So, I don’t rule out that a scientist can also be a believer. For me it is normal, it is one way of obtaining a moral compass.”

What would you like to be remembered for, in the annals of history?

Kostya is bestowed with extraordinary gifts of intelligence, knowledge, capability and good fortune, and accolades and honor that would make most heads spin. However, in his case, his feet are planted firmly on the ground. He says, “I’m enjoying my life, my research, my art. I don’t think about legacy.”

He recalls, “Some time ago, when I was still a PhD student, Klaus von Klitzing (Nobel prize for Quantum Hall Effect) told me that if you ever think about winning a Nobel Prize, you will never get one. I have always been [only] focusing on my research.”

“I guess it works the same with legacy.”

History records that the greatest leaders are the humblest, for they are able to see beyond self to include the entirety of mankind. This is, beyond doubt, the epitome of Konstantin “Kostya” Novoselov.

Kostya has published over 450 papers (mainly as the leading or corresponding author) with more than 30 papers in Nature and Science, more than 65 in Nature Physics, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology and Nature Communications and 17 Physical Review Letters.

Impact on science

Kostya’s two papers in Science 2004 and Nature 2005 are the most cited papers on graphene and “have opened up a fast moving front” (according to ISI’s Essential Science IndicatorsSM). The Science paper has also been acknowledged as “one of the most cited recent papers in the field of Physics” (cited more than 50,000 times).

Kostya’s Science 2004 paper is named among the top 100 most cited papers ever in all fields.

He has been cited over 250,000 times, has a h-index of 133, and has a current citation rate of over 20,000 per annum (all as of December 2022).

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

Latest from Blog