Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Trio for Study of Climate Change, Complex Systems

An international trio of scientists shared the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday for pioneering ways to find the order hidden in complexity, laying the foundation for computer models that explore how human activity is changing global climate.

Half of the coveted prize was awarded to

Giorgio Parisi

of Italy’s Sapienza University of Rome for his discovery of patterns in the interplay of order and disorder, on scales ranging from molecules to entire planets. His work makes it possible to describe seemingly random phenomena in areas from physics and neuroscience to machine learning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which announced the annual prize, said.

Dr. Parisi had his phone close at hand when the Nobel committee called early Tuesday. “In some sense I was not expecting it, but I knew there was some chance, so I kept the phone near me,” he said. “I was very happy.”

The other half of the prize was shared by

Syukuro Manabe,

a senior meteorologist at Princeton University, and

Klaus Hasselmann

at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg for their independent work on modeling the Earth’s climate.

Taken together, the prize awards theory and practice.

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The three winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics were announced at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Tuesday.



Photo:

jonathan nackstrand/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“You think you will drown in complexity, but this science can show that simplicity can emerge and you can get an insight into the true behavior of these complex systems,” said physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “It is difficult to think of something more complex than the world’s climate.”

Dr. Manabe’s research, dating back to the 1960s, demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide can lead to increased temperatures on the surface of the Earth, laying the foundation for the creation of climate models used today.

“The whole field of climate modeling originates with Suki,” said Gabriel Vecchi, deputy director of Princeton’s Cooperative Institute for Modeling the Earth System. “The idea that you can take something so complex as the climate system and code the equations that govern it and put them in a computer and use that to simulate the climate system started with him.”

In the 1970s, Dr. Hasselmann in Hamburg created a model tying together weather and climate, helping to remove uncertainty over the reliability of climate models, despite weather being erratic and inconsistent, the academy said. His work, which includes methods for attributing the various impacts on climate from both human activity and natural phenomena, has been used to show how human carbon-dioxide emissions can cause increases in temperatures.

“I’m completely surprised … a bolt from the blue,” Dr. Hasselman told the Nobel officials when they called. “I came to climate as a physicist,” he said. “It is difficult for somebody not actually working in climate to recognize that we are actually changing climate until it has become quite obvious.”

Most scientists have coalesced in recent years around the idea that greenhouse-gas emissions from human activity, like burning coal for power, have contributed to a warming climate since preindustrial times. The decision to honor the work of Messrs. Manabe, originally from Japan, and Hasselmann came a little less than a month before a United Nations summit on climate in Glasgow, Scotland.

“I’m hugely impressed that climate is even on their radar,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences in New York, a leading center for global climate modeling. “This is not the usual fare for the Nobel Prize committee. For the topic to be recognized by them is remarkable.”

A total of 218 people have won the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901, for breakthroughs in fields from black holes to gravitational waves. It is the third time that a Nobel Prize has been awarded for work related to the impact of human activity on global climate. The prize carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor, equivalent to about $1.15 million.

In 1995, Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for pinpointing how industrial chemicals damaged Earth’s protective ozone layer, which helped spur an international treaty banning the compounds. In 2007, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former U.S. Vice President

Al Gore

were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to bring climate change to the world’s attention.

“Climate science in general has also been relatively slow in the scientific community to gain a wide acceptance and appreciation,” said Sylvester James Gates Jr., a physicist at Brown University and president of the American Physical Society. “This is the work of physics done on a grand scale for all of humanity.”

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at sciencejournal@wsj.com and Benjamin Katz at ben.katz@wsj.com

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