Land of Hope and Technology February 2016 - Page 4

ISSUE 1 Let’s begin with that Friday night On that auspicious occasion two scientists were doing what they had done many time before. Friday night was experiment night. They and their students used to regularly experiment, often on ideas not necessarily connected to their work. On this particular occasion, the tool of their experiment was scotch tape, the subject was graphite, a commonly available substance which everyone who has used a pencil is familiar with. On this occasion they tried applying the tape to the graphite, stripping off a layer at a time. The end result was something that has been hailed as a wonder material: graphene. This is the material that is just one atom thick, 200 times stronger than steel and has been described as providing the potential solution to efficient water desalination, faster and more powerful computers, more efficient energy storage, electric sports cars, lightweight planes, semi-transparent mobile phones and bullet proof clothes lighter than silk underwear. Andre Geim, one of the two scientists behind the isolation of graphene, described that process which led to the breakthrough as ‘joking around on a Friday night’. So remarkable was this discovery that in 2010, just six years after the first paper describing the isolation of graphene was published, Geim and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize for Physics. So that’s six years from breakthrough to Nobel Prize, such a short time frame is simply unprecedented. The above story illustrates some of Britain’s core strengths in two key ways. Firstly, excellence of its universities. Two British universities in particular are famous worldwide, but it is not just Oxbridge that is held in high esteem. The UK possesses an abundance of universities celebrated across the world. The research that is forthcoming from these institutions is providing the foundation to a new revolution in technology, one that will touch the lives of everyone on this planet. This is not where their importance ends, however. These universities help create talent, much of which stays in the UK, they also draw in talent from abroad, which then takes up residence on these shores. Neither Geim nor Novoselov were British by birth. In fact they were born in Russia. Today Geim has both Dutch and British nationality, Novoselov is Dutch. Both, however live in the UK, working at Manchester University. Partly because of the strength of its education institutions, but not only for that reason, the UK is like a magnet to talent across the world. The popularity of this country amongst immigrants is one of its core strengths. As the story of that Friday night when graphene was isolated shows, immigrants to the UK are helping ensure some of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the world occur in the UK. But, in helping propel the UK into the vanguard of the next technological revolution, immigration offers more than just a pillar of intellectualism to its universities. It also provides entrepreneurial fire, business nous, a much needed dollop of risk taking to a country that for too long was paralysed by fear of trying something new, and a zeal to create wealth. The story of graphene also illustrates how the UK may yet manage to mess up, to take the opportunity that awaits us all, and