50 Years Before Greta: Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Modeling Earth’s Climate

Two of the three 2021 Nobel Prize winners in physics – Shukur Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann – are 90 years old. The awarding of the climate patriarchs prize reminds the world that climate change is not a political slogan: serious scientists have known and talked about it for more than half a century.

Traditionally, the results of the Nobel Prize in Physics are announced not only in Swedish and English, but in three other languages: German, French and Russian. Therefore, there is no room for interpretations in translation – the Nobel Prize in Physics 2021 was awarded to:

  • (half prize) Shukuru Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for physical modeling of the Earth’s climate, quantitative analysis of variations and reliable prediction of global warming;
  • (second half of the prize) Giorgio Parisi for his discovery of how disorder and fluctuations interact in physical systems from atomic to planetary sizes.

We tell about the contribution of each of them and why the Nobel Committee decided to remind right now that climate change is not a policy, but a science.

Shukuro Manabe. Most influential work in history

Shukuro Manabe was born in Japan, but moved to the United States to pursue science immediately after his Ph.D. Back in the 60s of the XX century, he first showed how the growing content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to an increase in temperature at the Earth’s surface. For this, Manabe developed physical models of the Earth’s climate – he was the first to connect the vertical transport of air masses with the balance of solar radiation. His work formed the basis of modern climate models, but she herself was distinguished by miniature grace. Now in the climate model, you can put a huge number of parameters, they are calculated by gigantic super-powerful supercomputers, but what happened in the 60s? To make the modeling task feasible, Manabe actually left only one parameter – the height of the air column – and still got a meaningful correct result.

Shukuro Manabe at his home in Princeton, New Jersey on October 5, 2021.  Photo: Reuters

Shukuro Manabe at his home in Princeton, New Jersey on October 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters

“Shukuro Manabe is a true patriarch of modern climate science, he was at the origins of climate modeling in the days when the Fortran programming language first appeared. Manabe’s article and his late co-author Richard Weserold in 1967 with the results of the first attempts at such modeling is still considered the most influential work on the topic of climate in history, “says Olga Dobrovidova, science journalist, president of the Association of Communicators in Education and Science (AKSON) and one of the veterans of climate journalism in Russia.

Klaus Hasselman. Climate, weather and human influence

Klaus Hasselmann was born in Hamburg and built his scientific career practically without leaving his hometown, where he eventually became the director of the institute. Ten years after Manabe’s breakthrough work, he created a model that links climate and weather (you should never confuse the two!) – and so showed that climate models can be reliable, although weather is a variable and chaotic phenomenon.

“Klaus Hasselman, a superstar of no smaller scale, showed, among other things, how to detect anthropogenic signal in climate data. When in 2013 the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Nobel Peace Prize laureates, wrote that human influence was the dominant factor in the warming observed since the middle of the 20th century, they relied on decades of research, which was opened by Hasselman, “Dobrovidova recalls.

Klaus Hasselman raises a glass of champagne at a meeting with colleagues and journalists after his announcement as a Nobel laureate, October 5, 2021.  Photo: Reuters

Klaus Hasselman raises a glass of champagne at a meeting with colleagues and journalists after his announcement as a Nobel laureate, October 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters

Mathematician Konstantin Knop from the Euclidea.xyz project agrees with the fundamental scientific role of Hasselman’s work.

“Today, the study of climate is already a huge scientific field, but half a century ago it was not so. It seems to me that climatologists were then a narrow caste of scientists who were“ stewed in their own way ”and were not very familiar with the work of people not from this caste. that’s why he made breakthrough things there, that he was not a man from the inside: he received a good general theoretical education and actually came to this sandbox from “big science,” he explains.

Giorgio Parisi. Natural in the complex

The third laureate – Giorgio Parisi – stands apart among the laureates. He is much younger and still plays a significant role in Italian science (73 years by Italian standards is not a pension, but professional maturity). His award-winning work dates back to the early 1980s: he was able to find patterns in the behavior of disordered complex materials. More generally, his discoveries formed the basis of the theory of complex systems in general. A complex system, in simple terms, is a system that consists of many interacting components in such a way that it acquires new properties that are not reducible to the sum of the properties of its components. Parisi’s work reveals more than ever the validity of the statement that physics is the science of everything. Parisi’s equations describe the growth of surfaces, the circling of flocks of birds, and the movement of elementary particles. The results of his work are applied in mathematics, physics, biology, neurosciences, machine learning.

Giorgio Parisi after being declared a Nobel laureate on October 5, 2021.  Photo: Reuters

Giorgio Parisi after being declared a Nobel laureate on October 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters

And what do they have in common? It is the complexity and the ability to describe it. After all, the Earth’s climate is a complex system, and the key to understanding it is the ability to see orderliness in the apparent chaos of the weather. Another fundamentally important and difficult property of complex systems is that a very small change in one of the parameters can lead to huge general shifts in the entire system (recall the definition: the properties of a system do not equal the sum of the properties of its parts). In this description, you probably already recognized carbon dioxide – a very small change in its content has a huge impact on the Earth’s climate as a whole. And this is not confirmed by the words of one of the world leaders or a Swedish girl, but complex physics, which is half a century old.

“We’ve been warning about risks for fifty years.” Why did you have to wait so long for the award?

“We have been warning about the risks of climate change for fifty years now,” said Klaus Hasselmann, answering questions from the Nobel Committee immediately after the announcement of the names of the winners.

Alexander Chernokulsky, senior researcher at the Obukhov Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, climatologist and one of the most authoritative public experts in the field of climate in Russia, sees a large role of this award in maintaining the authority of climate science.

“The Nobel Peace Prize awarded by the IPCC in 2007 is more of a political story. This is not a “97% consensus” for you, this is a real recognition of climate physics by the entire scientific community. By the way, it was Hasselman who first used the phrase “climate crisis” in 1991, and not the Guardian and others decades later, “he recalls.

Experts believe that the awarding of the 2007 Peace Prize could have played a cruel joke on the scientists who are focusing on the study of the climate. There was a feeling that climate change is some kind of policy, not science. It took more than ten years – and these changes have already become visible and obvious to everyone, after which the scientific community finally fully recognized the merits of the people who predicted what was happening more than half a century ago.

The situation with awarding Manabe, Hasselman and Parisi is somewhat similar to the story of Robert Edwards, the British physiologist, the creator of IVF (extracorporeal fertilization) technology. He made his discovery back in the 1950s, but political reasons (namely, religious opposition) did not allow scientific recognition to take place. It happened only when the first IVF children had already born and raised their own, most ordinary children. And Edwards by that time was already so old and so weak in health that it is not clear if he could even realize that he had become a Nobel laureate. But Edwards at least was alive – until today’s climatic Nobel, for example, Manabe’s co-author Richard Weserold.

“Now you can often hear that climate change has finally moved from the plane of science to the plane of economics and politics. The more appropriate is this polite reminder from the Nobel Committee that our ideas about it are based on half a century of fundamental physics of complex systems,” Olga Dobrovidova sums up.

The amount of the Nobel Prize, which the laureates will divide into three unequal parts – a quarter for Manabe and Hasselman and half for Parisi – is 10 million Swedish kronor (approximately $ 1.1 million). The awards ceremony will take place at a traditional event in Stockholm.


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