The Nobel Prize-winning physicist on the importance of enthusiasm and moving on from graphene

Kostya Novoselov is a professor at the Institute for Functional Intelligent Materials, National University of Singapore, and the National Graphene Institute, University of Manchester, UK. In 2010, he and Andre Geim won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on graphene.

My dream profession as a child was to test parachutes. My grandfather was a military man and he was in a parachuting squad. I only took a jump once in my life. It was scary to step out of the plane. There’s a joke: When you are a few kilometres up, you open the door and you see Google Maps underneath you. Are you scared of Google Maps? Once you step out it’s really enjoyable. It was a great experience, I really loved it.

People would probably guess that carbon must be my favourite element. It is indeed a remarkable element. It is so simple and versatile, but I never think about it being my favourite. I’ve been working on very different materials in my life. I started with III–V semiconductors – gallium arsenide, and so on. And then graphene, and many others. Now niobium is probably my favourite, because of the superconductivity. I’m quite excited about this.

I don’t do that much graphene these days. I’m sure lots of chemists would be able to teach me a lot about graphene or about any other 2D materials.

People saying I was going to be next to win the Nobel prize was quite detrimental. A good friend of mine, Klaus von Klitzing, got his Nobel prize in 1985 for the quantum Hall effect. He said that if you ever think about the Nobel Prize, you will never get it. So I managed to disconnect from it. And you can see from my pictures on the day the prize was announced that it came completely unexpectedly. I was totally unshaved, in an old, dirty, holey T-shirt.

I don’t really know where my Nobel medal is. It’s somewhere in the university. I didn’t know where to keep it, so I asked our vice chancellor Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell to hold on it. It must be somewhere. I hope so at least. I haven’t seen it for many, many years.

There are gaps which I was completely unaware of a few years ago

I do quite a bit of chemistry now, at least physical chemistry. As an outsider you notice the blind spots easier than people who are in the field – you approach problems from a different perspective and see that they’re still unsolved. I have the same problem in my old field, where you just turn a blind eye to some of the things which are not very well understood. You brush it under the carpet because you are just used to it.

My confidence even in my own area of physics goes down with time. The amount of knowledge I have goes up, but so does the fraction of understanding that is missing. The more we know, the more I understand that things are much more complex than that. Even in my own area, there are gaps which I was completely unaware of a few years ago.

Science is producing new knowledge, something unpredictable, something that didn’t exist before. It’s not just derivative work. Discoveries come quite unexpectedly, but you need to work hard to create them. You never know when they’re going to happen. It’s probably similar to any artist or creative writer. You get writer’s block, or you cannot predict when the next masterpiece will come out. But unfortunately, you have to work hard every day, whether it’s coming or not.

The most fascinating and interesting place I’ve ever been to is my lab, obviously. Second place is North Korea. It’s like one of those Kafkaesque amusement parks – so many parallel realities, which don’t cross each other at all.

Frankly I haven’t got much free time now. I recently started a new institute, and it takes an enormous amount of time. But I do paint Chinese calligraphy, though I have less and less time to devote to it. I took formal education in China. I don’t know Chinese writing well enough to be able to do letters but you can paint landscapes, you can paint the usual stuff. I’ve moved away from the traditional Chinese style, it’s more modern art now. I still use a lot of Chinese ink. I use graphene ink as well.

There is so much unknown in this world, in science. As long as you are enthusiastic about what you’re doing, you are pretty much destined to stumble upon some discovery. But unless you are really enthusiastic you will not succeed, even if you are in the hottest possible field. So don’t switch topics simply because it’s fashionable. Try to enjoy your work.