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“No one had tried such a silly thing before” — Geim

With this idea in mind and, allegedly, on a Friday night, I poured water inside the lab’s electromagnet when it was at its maximum power. Pouring water in one’s equipment is certainly not a standard scientific approach, and I cannot recall why I behaved so ‘unprofessionally’. Apparently, no one had tried such a silly thing before, although similar facilities existed in several places around the world for decades. To my surprise, water did not end up on the floor but got stuck in the vertical bore of the magnet. Humberto Carmona, a visiting student from Nottingham, and I played for an hour with the water by breaking the blockage with a wooden stick and changing the field strength. As a result, we saw balls of levitating water (Figure 1). This was awesome. It took little time to realise that the physics behind was good old diamagnetism. It took much longer to adjust my intuition to the fact that the feeble magnetic response of water (approximately 10 to the minus 5 billions of times weaker than that of iron) was sufficient to compensate the earth’s gravity. Many colleagues, including those who worked with high magnetic fields all their lives, were flabbergasted, and some of them even argued that this was a hoax. I spent the next few months demonstrating magnetic levitation to colleagues and visitors, as well as trying to make a ‘non-boffin’ illustration for this beautiful phenomenon. Out of the many objects that we had floating inside the magnet, it was the image of a levitating frog (Figure 1) that started the media hype…

The passage appears on pages 73-74 of Andre Geim’s autobiography. Andre Geim is the only person who has been awarded both the Ig Nobel Prize in physics (in 2000, for using magnets to levitate a frog) and the Nobel Prize in physics (in 2010, for discoveries about the substance graphene).

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