It was the closest that physicist Pablo Jarillo-Herrero had ever come to being a rock star. When he stood up in March to give a talk in Los Angeles, California, he saw scientists packed into every nook of the meeting room. The organizers of the American Physical Society conference had to stream the session to a huge adjacent space, where a standing-room-only crowd had gathered. “I knew we had something very important,” he says, “but that was pretty crazy.”

The throngs of physicists had come to hear how Jarillo-Herrero’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge had unearthed exotic behaviour in single-atom-thick layers of carbon, known as graphene. Researchers already knew that this wonder material can conduct electricity at ultra-high speed. But the MIT team had taken a giant leap by turning graphene into a superconductor: a material that allows electricity to flow without resistance. They achieved that feat by placing one sheet of graphene over another, rotating the other sheet to a special orientation, or ‘magic angle’, and cooling the ensemble to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. That twist radically changed the bilayer’s properties — turning it first into an insulator and then, with the application of a stronger electric field, into a superconductor.

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