Nobel Prize for scientists who found hidden climate patterns

5 Oct 2021

Illustration of Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi . Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi have contributed to our understanding of complex systems such as those behind global heating.

Three scientists from the US, Germany and Italy have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for their “groundbreaking contributions” to our understanding of complex systems.

Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of Hamburg’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University of Rome have all been recognised for their research that found hidden patterns in the climate and other complex phenomena.

“Complex systems are characterised by randomness and disorder and are difficult to understand,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote in its announcement. “This year’s prize recognises new methods for describing them and predicting their long-term behaviour.”

Manabe and Hasselmann jointly won one half of the award for physically modelling the Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global heating. The Academy said that these scientists “laid the foundation of our knowledge” of Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it.

The other half of the award went to Parisi for discovering the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales. The Academy said he was rewarded for his “revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes”.

Who are they?

Japan-born Manabe, who is a senior meteorologist at Princeton, developed physical models in the 1960s to show how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led to rises in surface temperature. His work has laid the foundation for many current climate models.

Hasselmann then linked weather and climate in a model. His work helped identify the impacts of human and natural activities on the climate, and showed how climate models can be accurate despite the erratic nature of weather.

Meanwhile, Parisi made discoveries in the field of disordered complex materials that greatly improved the theory of complex systems – benefitting areas beyond the realm of physics, including maths, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.

“The discoveries being recognised this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations,” Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said.

“This year’s laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems.”

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics went to Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for their discoveries around black holes.

Yesterday (4 October), three US scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries around how we sense heat and touch.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic