Seeing the Invisible

Leave it to mechanical engineering and physics professors to produce “Graphene: The Musical” to the tune of J.J. Cale’s 1976 bluesy rock ballad, “Cocaine.” The song, of course, Cale wrote for guitarist Eric Clapton on his legendary album (and nickname), Slowhand, in 1977:


If you want to beat Moore, you need carbon to the core—graphene.

If you need C-MOS, this is your boss—graphene.

She goes fast, she goes fast, she goes fast—graphene.


The Georgia Tech professors, G. Paul Neitzel and Andy Zangwill, published their sonic parody in October 2010. The spoof is the kind of supremely teachable and catchy dry humor effective teaching scientists employ in the classroom, much like my high school chemistry teacher, a former nuclear submarine commander, who always asked at the beginning of class, “What’s Nu?”

Without fail, we all knew to respond, in unison, “C over Lambda.” Whether we understood that our teacher was trying to ingrain the lesson of how to determine the frequency of an electromagnetic wave, no one really knows. A handful of us became scientists. The rest of us, hopeless liberal-arts types, just like to read about the latest discoveries.

Graphene, is perhaps the material darling not only of engineers, but also the Internet. Based on graphene’s physical properties–200 times stronger than steel, yet lightweight and flexible; electrically and thermally conductive, yet transparent; one million times smaller than a diameter of a strand of human hair; and the world’s first two-dimensional material—it sounds like we are observing the birth of a superhero instead of a crystalline material made up of single layer of carbon.

Redditors wax poetic about the ultralight, ultrastrong form of graphite (and, of course, there is a subreddit dedicated to graphene). The material often makes appearances in another subreddit entitled, aptly enough, “interestingasfuck”. There are memes galore about graphene and an oft-posted photograph of “graphene aerogel on cherry blossom,” whereby the super-enhanced pale pink petals support a chunk of carbon in a double-take feat of futuristic strength.

Four years ago, The New Yorker asked plainly enough, “Graphene may be the most remarkable substance ever discovered. But what’s it for?” Or as one Redditor, Ardal, posted 23 days ago, “This has all the hallmarks of the ‘asbestos’ of the future. So light, so small, so easily inhaled and sucked into the lungs. :/”

The uses of graphene have become much more visible since The New Yorker asked about graphene, huh, what’s it good for? The Scientific American reported last summer that some of the “quirkier” uses might include nano hair dye, electronic ID tags, and “extra-gripping graphene shoes.” Graphene textiles can be made into “artificial muscles” or combined with “battery materials to power wearable electronics.” Perhaps one of the most interesting cases is about to be revealed in Barcelona, Spain at the end of the month at the Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest gathering for the mobile industry.

Researchers at the Barcelona Microelectronics Institute and the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and ICFO, partners of the Graphene Flagship, will unveil graphene-based microtransistors that “can record electrical activity in the brain at extremely low frequencies and over large areas.” The study, published in Nature Materials, makes the case that graphene could greatly assist in advancing neurological research about seizures and strokes. We can possibly move away from electrodes and segue into a world where tiny graphene transistors amplify “the brain’s signals in situ before transmitting them to a receiver.”

For scientists, the researchers refer to the graphene microtransistors as measuring the “high-resolution mapping of infraslow cortical activity,” especially brain activity which is below 0.1 hertz. For lay people who love graphene, many refer to this graphene innovation as measuring the “brain’s whispers.” For poets, perhaps we can remember the lines from Walt Whitman’s 1892 version of “Song of Myself.”


I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,

O suns—O grass of graves—O perpetual transfers and promotions,

If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?


Thinking about how the brain may reveal itself through graphene microtransistors makes one think that perhaps all the fuss and fawning, the musical odes, the late-night Internet commenting, the congresses made of researchers, inventors, and mobile commerce intent on discovering the next big invention are in order. To explore how the brain functions and to produce graphene yarns, to see the invisible and to potentially just brush on hair dye—these are the many sacred and profane aims of graphene.

“There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me,” Whitman wrote. We may one day, in the near future, say the same of graphene.