Levitating frogs and the power of play

Watching graphite peel off the point of a pencil I was sharpening reminded me of a quirky tale about levitating frogs and a Nobel Prize that began with playfulness and a pencil.
This is a story about the power of play and a levitating frog. Its hero is a man named Sir Andre Konstantin Geim, a Russian-born Dutch and British citizen and professor at the University of Manchester, whose dictum is that it’s better to be wrong than boring.
After levitating the frog, he explained that, in his experience, if people didn’t have a sense of humour they didn’t make very good scientists. He has and he is: Geim’s the only scientist to win both a Nobel Prize in 2010 for his discovery of the world’s strongest substance, graphene, and an Ig Nobel Prize awarded for experiments so outlandish they first make people laugh – then make them think. It’s not a new story but worth retelling.
When news of the flying frog began making the rounds in April 1997, people assumed it was an April Fool’s joke. It wasn’t and may result in anti-gravity cars that never touch the road. This is how it happened.
It had never occurred to scientists that water’s magnetism – billions of times weaker than iron – was strong enough to counter gravity. But one evening, while working with Radboud University’s High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands, Geim set the electromagnet to maximum power and poured water into the expensive machine’s hollow core. He can’t remember why he acted so unprofessionally.
The descending water “got stuck” within the vertical bore and balls of water started levitating. He had discovered that a “feeble magnetic response of water” could act against a magnetic force, including that of the earth. Frogs are mostly water so he tried with a frog and it levitated too, with no ill effect on the creature.
It was the first time a living organism had levitated purely due to a magnetic field. He would share the Ig Nobel prize with colleague Michael Berry and be awarded the International Creativity Prize for Water.
What seemed like a late-nighFt lark evolved into what Geim calls the Friday Night Experiments – a bunch of scientists working after hours every Friday on the “crazy things that probably won’t pan out at all, but if they do, it would be really surprising”. From the start of his career, he had devoted 10% of ...