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Non-physicists win Nobel Prize for Physics

The Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to three scientists whose work has been vital in the understanding and predicting of changes in Earth’s climate.

By Lily Steel

Photo courtesy of Florian Pircher from Pixabay

The Nobel Prize in Physics is something you might assume would be awarded for unravelling phenomena like black holes, the theory of relativity or atoms being split apart. But in 2021, the prestigious Prize is being awarded to three scientists whose work has helped predict and model climate change – knowledge that will be vital in the coming century. Half of the Prize was awarded to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for developing models of the Earth’s climate. The other half was awarded to Giorgio Parisi for discovering patterns in disordered complex systems, one of which is our climate.

Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour, are only a small percentage of atmospheric gases, and yet they provide the essential service of keeping the earth a suitable temperature for life. Manabe was a key player in determining the role of these gases. This was a breakthrough that discovered that if the amount of greenhouse gases increases, then the atmospheric temperature at Earth’s surface is likely to increase.

The reason why weather is so hard to predict is because it is disordered, and there are so many things that can influence it. The atmosphere is a swirling vortex of chaos which means that long-term accurate weather predictions are near impossible. But Hasselmann found a way to separate the chaotic weather fluctuations from long-term trends in the climate and make predictions about it. His mathematical model used identifiable fingerprints that have a strong influence on the climate, like solar radiation, greenhouse gas levels and volcanic particles along with a component of chance, to account for the random nature of weather systems. The fingerprint of human impact can also be identified and included in the model. Hasselmann’s work laid the foundation for studies that would show the massive effects of human activity on the climate and explained the regularity of the climate despite the irregularity of weather.

Parisi’s work involved finding rules in phenomena that appear to be random. Disordered complex systems, like weather, appear to have opposing forces and physical properties that would have particles, and therefore weather systems, moving in unpredictable ways. He used a material called spin glass, in which atoms are frustrated because of opposing magnetic forces, to create a mathematical model that showed patterns in the disordered system. The model explained how individual moving atoms can form complex collective movements of groups of atoms. So, while he wasn’t directly studying the climate, his work allowed weather fluctuations to be explained on planetary scale.

science is all interconnected, and it will take people coming together from many fields to find innovative new ways to combat the threat of climate change.

These discoveries were all made before the turn of the century but are only being recognised now. It was in the 1960s that Manabe was able to explain the link between carbon dioxide and the temperature of the atmosphere. In the 70s, Hasselmann created his mathematical model that linked weather and climate. And then in the 80s, Parisi came along with his complex systems theory. It seems that, finally, climate scientists are being taken seriously. After all, a Nobel Prize is about as serious as you can get. Only now in 2021, they are given the full credit for their vital work which they deserve. This is the first Physics Prize that was awarded in part to two people who aren’t technically physicists – Giorgio Parisi is the only true physicist – and the first Nobel Prize to be awarded to a climatologist. This is just an example of how science is all interconnected, and it will take people coming together from many fields to find innovative new ways to combat the threat of climate change.