Skip to main content

The Graphene Revolution - Brian Clegg ****

Graphene's one of those words that gets bandied around a lot without getting more than some vague feeling of what it's all about. In the end, it's just a material, and everyone knows that books about materials don't make for very exciting reading. But the advantage Brian Clegg has here is that graphene is not just a wonder material (which it certainly is) but it also has a brilliant story attached to it.

The two Russian discoverers of graphene (sort of - more on that in a moment), working at Manchester University are, to say the least, characters. This is particularly the case with Andre Geim, who first came to fame (or infamy) when he successfully levitated live frogs using a very powerful magnet. Geim and his co-discoverer Konstantin Novoselov had the idea that you should be able to spend some time on what they called 'Friday Night Projects' (spare time activities to look at something completely different) and they succeeded remarkably with graphene.

Clegg gives us the story of the Russian duo's discovery: they used discarded bits of sticky tape that had been used to clean blocks of carbon. Graphene had already been named, as a way to describe the atom-thin layers that make up a sheet of graphite, but it was thought it wouldn't be possible to produce stable sheets of graphene, which ought to collapse under its internal forces. Geim and Novoselov set out to prove different.

Their story is hard to read without smiling, but the book isn't all about the dynamic duo. (Is it unfair to think of Novoselov as the Robin of graphene to Geim's Batman?) There's a lot on the structure of graphene, including why it's incredibly strong and pretty much the best conductor without resorting to superconductors, and also how it could be practically used. Sometimes it can seem there's a bit too much of this, as if Clegg can't resist telling us one more possibility, but we soon move onto something else.

Sometimes even those potential ways of using graphene seem to have a touch of Geim magic about them. Take, for instance, the graphene coating on a bottle that allows water to pass through but not alcohol - so anything alcoholic left in the bottle gets stronger and stronger of its own accord. This is a wonderful material, with a great story, and Clegg tells it well.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Jo Reed
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…