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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


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

The Book of Minds - Philip Ball ****

It's fitting that this book on the nature of minds should be written by the most cerebral of the UK's professional science writers, Philip Ball. Like the uncertainty attached to the related concept of consciousness, exactly what a mind is , and what makes it a mind, is very difficult to pin down. Ball takes us effectively through some of the difficult definitions and unpacking involved to understand at least what researchers mean by 'mind', even if their work doesn't not necessarily enlighten us much. A lot of the book is taken up with animals and to what extent they can be said to have minds. Ball bases his picture of a mind on a phrase that is reminiscent of Nagel's famous paper on being a bat. According to Ball, an organism can be said to have a mind if there is something that is what it is like to be that organism. (You may need to read that a couple of times.) At one end of the spectrum - apes, cetaceans, dogs, for instance - it's hard to believe that t

Forget Me Not - Sophie Pavelle ***(*)

There was a lot to like in Sophie Pavelle's debut popular science title. In it, she visits ten locations in the UK (against the backdrop of the Covid lockdowns) where species that are in some way threatened by humans and/or climate change are found. The writing style is extremely light and personal, while the content on the different species was both interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed chapters on sea grass and dung beetles, which are accompanied by coverage of a species each of butterfly, porpoise, bat, guillemot, salmon, hare, bird of prey and bumblebee. There's a nice mix of three threads - writing about the species itself, about the visit to the location (so something close to travel writing, as Pavelle attempts to avoid driving and flying as much as possible) and about the environmental side. I'm not sure the writing style is for everyone - I found it verged on arch at times, didn't endear me with several enthusiastic references to Love Island and

The Midwich Cuckoos (SF) - John Wyndham *****

The recent TV adaptation of John Wyndham's classic science fiction novel inspired me to dig out my copy (which has a much better cover than the current Penguin version) to read it again for the first time in decades - and it was a treat. Published in 1957, the book takes a cosy world that feels more typical of a 1930s novel - think, for example, of a village in Margery Allingham's or Agatha Christie's books - and applies to it a wonderfully innovative SF concept. Rather than give us the classic H. G. Wells alien invasion, which, as a character points out, is really just conventional warfare with a twist, Wyndham envisaged a far more insidious invasion where the aliens are implanted in every woman of childbearing age in the village (in a period of time known as the Dayout, when everyone is rendered unconscious).  Apparently like humans but for their bright golden eyes, a joined consciousness and the ability to influence human minds, the Children effectively take over the vil