Prof Sir Konstantin Novoselov: Physics and fine art

Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov enjoys working creatively, both in material science and in abstract art forms (Photo: The University of Manchester)

On 22 October 2004, Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov along with other colleagues including his former PhD supervisor Professor Sir Andre Geim published one of the most revolutionary scientific papers of the 21st century. 

In it, they described the isolation of the world’s first two-dimensional (2D) material. This atomically thin sheet was graphene — the strongest, most stretchable, most conductive, material ever discovered — and the two colleagues later shared the 2010 Nobel prize in Physics for their ground-breaking accomplishment.

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,” he said. “Being a prize-winner doesn’t make you 100 times smarter, but people certainly listen to you for a change,” he joked.

This humble attitude also translates into how Prof Novoselov conducts his research and works with his students. “I tend to work in small teams,” he said. “But of course, what is most important is the community. I find it much more stimulating if you collaborate. So, my task now is to create this sense of community in my lab at NUS,” he noted.

Originally from Russia, but also a citizen of the United Kingdom, Prof Novoselov has a long collaborative history with the NUS Centre for Advanced 2D Materials. However, it was the new opportunities available which ultimately attracted him to make the move from Manchester University to NUS. “I wanted to take my research in a slightly 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,” he stated.

This new research direction will be looking deeper into cutting-edge advanced materials. “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,” he explained. By building from the atomic level up, these advanced materials could push the boundaries of what is possible, for example by being lighter, stronger, and more conductive than ever before.

I wanted to take my research in a slightly 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.

Naturally, working with these atomically thin materials calls for a skilled and patient researcher. The intricate manipulations involved often require a steady hand — something which Prof Novoselov claims he did not always have. “I like to work with my hands, but 20 years ago as a PhD student, I saw that my professors were much more adept at handling materials than me,” he said. “So, as a form of training, I bought a cutthroat razor to shave with. After much practice, my hands became steadier and I was able to perform the skillful actions required. I still shave with a cutthroat razor today,” he declared.

Now, Prof Novoselov admits that he has fewer opportunities for hands-on research, as he encourages his team to perform many of the practical elements of lab work. So to continue working with his hands, and to keep his dexterity keen, he has taken to more artistic pursuits and regularly paints.

“I was lucky enough to be trained in traditional Chinese painting by a prominent Chinese artist,” he said. After painting customary objects like bamboo, orchids, lotuses, and cherry blossoms, Prof Novoselov started to use the same techniques to paint other objects, and his teacher was encouraging. “He understood that it doesn’t matter what you paint, it’s how well you transfer the mood to the painting that’s important,” he explained.

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Professor Sir Konstantin Novoselov often paints with a combination of graphene ink and Chinese ink to encode secret characters within his paintings. These can only be revealed with a spectrometer and such methods can be used to authenticate the work (Photo: Konstantin Novoselov)

Now he uses Chinese brushes and techniques to paint anything that he likes — even using graphene ink in some paintings. “Graphene ink is not as black as Chinese ink; it has a silver sheen which I can use for the aesthetic quality,” he added. 

He continued, “But also, it’s possible to paint with Chinese and graphene ink in combination so that the graphene ink cannot be seen with the naked eye. In fact, the only way to observe the brushstrokes would be with a spectrometer. In this way, I can encode secret characters and meanings in my paintings using graphene.” However, unfortunately, Prof Novoselov is staying tight-lipped on where to look, and how to decipher these codes.

Since starting his positon at NUS just over a month ago, Prof Novoselov mentioned that he’s already been hard at work. “This first month was very intense, with a lot of effort on settling in. However, I’m very happy that I managed to dedicate most of my time to science. I’ve continued some old projects, and also started some new ones too,” he said. Whether scientific or artistic, Prof Novoselov’s work is always interesting and innovative, and as such, his upcoming projects at NUS will certainly be ones to look out for in future.