The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded jointly to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi for “groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of complex physical systems.”

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists whose cumulative work can be summed up in two words: Climate change. Half of the prize went to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann “for the physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.” And the other half went to Giorgio Parisi “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.” The Nobel Committee got Parisi on the line from his home in Rome to Stockholm, and when asked whether he had a message for politicians meeting at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, he said simply: “We have to act now.”

Syukuro Manabe, who in the 1960s began work to demonstrate how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. Then about 10 years later, Klaus Hasselmann created a model that linked together weather and climate. This work explained why climate models “can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic,” writes the Committee. And perhaps most significantly for non-scientists, Hasselmann developed methods for identifying which natural phenomena and which human activities leave their mark on our global climate. “His methods have been used to prove that the increased temperature in the atmosphere is due to human emissions of carbon dioxide,” writes the Committee. Then in the 1980s, Giorgio Parisi discovered “hidden patterns in disordered complex materials.” That work contributed to the general theory of complex systems. “They make it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random materials and phenomena, not only in physics but also in other very different areas, such as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning,” the Committee writes. Parisi’s work may seem unconnected to climate science, but our climate is one of our most complex systems, and we use mathematics and increasingly machine learning to understand it better. So, it all comes together.

Syukuro Manabe is a climatologist and meteorologist at Princeton University in the US. Manabe was one of the first to use computer modeling to study and explore the role of greenhouse gases in both maintaining and changing the thermal structure of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Klaus Hasselmann is a meteorologist at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany. Hasselmann is interested in the oceans and remote sensing of Earth’s climate with satellite technology.

Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, is a theoretical physicist with more than 500 scientific papers to his name. Parisi’s work has covered string theory, disordered systems and computer sciences.


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