Sir Andre Geim: ‘instant information about everything and everyone often allows an individual opinion to compete with consensus, and paranoia with evidence’

Andre Geim delivering his banquet speech
Sir Andre Geim delivering his banquet speech.
© The Nobel Foundation 2010 Photo: Orasisfoto

Today, I divert to science, for I was intrigued by BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs this morning, with Sir Andre Geim  as the guest. (Rosemary Sutcliff was a guest in the 1980s). [Desert Island Discs was created  in 1942 and continues today. The format is simple: a guest is invited by Kirsty Young to choose the eight records—as well as a luxury, and a book—they would take with them to a desert island].

I was intrigued by his music, his life and science, his views on students, and because he chose to take no particular book with him (since a whole library was not allowed), refused the bible, and was content just with the already-provided Complete Works of Shakespeare! I am intrigued now also by his address at the Banquet when he received his Nobel prize for research on graphene. He draws attention to the dangers when ‘instant information about everything and everyone often allows an individual opinion to compete with consensus and paranoia with evidence’.

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues and Friends

A lot of praise has already been given to our work and the exciting new material graphene. We will certainly hear even more tribute as graphene’s impact on our lives becomes more obvious. So, let me refrain from further praise because today is also an occasion to celebrate something else.

The last decades were relatively peaceful and quiet for the planet. But with no obvious danger from outside, we are facing another danger, from inside. Instant information about everything and everyone often allows an individual opinion to compete with consensus and paranoia with evidence. It is a time when one blunt honest statement can finish a life-long political career, and one opinionated journalist can bully a government or a royal family. Science is not immune from such pressures. For example, how many Nobel prize-winning experiments – you think – would have been stopped, if ethics or health-and-safety regulations at that time were as zealous as they are today? I can think of more than a few.

Human progress has always been driven by a sense of adventure and unconventional thinking. But amidst calls for “bread and circuses”, these virtues are often forgotten for the sake of cautiousness and political correctness that now rule the world. And we sink deeper and deeper from democracy into a state of mediocrity and even idiocracy. If you need an example, look no further than at research funding by the European Commission.

Against this backdrop I salute the Royal Swedish Academy for keeping the candle of merit alive. The great esteem in which the Nobel prizes are universally held is due to the fact that for several generations they have been given purely on scientific merit and not through lobbying and politicking. I do hope that it will stay this way, and the prizes will never be given according to the number of votes in live TV contests!

Let me also thank the Royal family for lending their unwavering support to the great Nobel tradition. It is a great feeling to partake in the lavish celebrations that put scientific achievement on such a high pedestal. The generosity of the Nobel foundation and all the Swedish people contribute to making the prize so very special.

From the very bottom of my heart, thank you all.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2010

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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