Nobel Prize in Physics 2021 – Award for climate research and understanding of complex systems

With their research, the researchers laid the foundation for knowledge about the earth’s climate and human influence and revolutionized the theory of disordered materials and random processes, explained the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2021 goes to the two climate researchers Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi (Nobel Prize Outreach)

What was researched?

Syukuro Manabe began with physical models of the earth’s climate in the 1960s. He was able to show that an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere leads to a warming of the earth’s surface.

Ten years later, Klaus Hasselmann succeeded in creating a model that linked climate and weather with one another. He was able to show that it is possible to make reliable predictions with climate models, even though the weather itself is chaotic and changeable. He also developed methods that make it possible to identify climatic footprints. With the help of his methods, it was possible to prove that global warming is due to man-made CO2 emissions.

Giorgio Parisi succeeded in showing that disordered systems contain hidden patterns. “Giorgio Parisi has an incredibly broad field of research”, commented the physicist Eckehard Schöll in the Dlf. Thanks to Parisi’s discoveries, a wide variety of apparently chaotic phenomena can be described and understood. This includes climate and weather as well as the course of a pandemic.

Many small birds are buzzing against a blue background.  They form a ball and then spread out in a fan shape.  (Imago / Blickwinkel / W.Pattyn) (Imago / Blickwinkel / W.Pattyn)The flock of birds as a complex system
From climate change to the course of a pandemic, making the unpredictable predictable can be useful for many things. Also to understand the flight of starlings, as Giorgio Parisi explained in 2009 on Deutschlandfunk.

What is the significance of the research results?

The committee justified its choice. In concrete terms, their basic research has contributed to making the scope of climate change understandable and predictable. The research of Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann provided the tools to prove that climate change is man-made.

Understanding complex systems is also relevant beyond physics and climate research. It is used in mathematics, neuroscience, biology or machine learning.

    (imago/stock&people/Science Photo Library) (imago/stock&people/Science Photo Library)Research in the Matrix – How simulations explain the world
The world is big and complex. Simulations help to understand what would otherwise appear impenetrable or unreachable. We only know about black holes and white dwarfs from computer simulations.

Honoring the climate researchers has not only sparked reactions from within the research community. The head of the World Weather Organization (WMO), Petteri Taalas, demanded that the decision of the Nobel Committee be seen as a mandate to politicians. Although almost all heads of state now regard climate change as a massive risk, there is a lack of concrete countermeasures. “It is clear that the goals must be set higher,” said Taalas to the dpa.

Jochem Marotzke, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, where Klaus Hasselmann still has an office, emphasizes that this year’s award for climate researchers is not a political Nobel Prize. Rather, it is evidence of how much fundamental physics there is in applied climate research, he said on Deutschlandfunk.

“We all admire Klaus Hasselmann”: Interview Prof. Jochem Marotzke

About the winners

Born in Rome in 1948, Giorgio Parisi has been Professor of Quantum Physics at La Sapienza University in Rome since 1992. The expert on predictable disorder was not completely taken by surprise by the award of the Nobel Prize: “I knew that there was a certain probability. So I stayed near the phone,” he said in an interview during the award ceremony.

The German climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann is completely different. He told the Swedish news agency TT that he wasn’t quite sure how he would celebrate the unexpected honor. “First I have to take a breath and see what happens,” TT quoted him as saying. Klaus Hasselmann was born in Hamburg in 1931. He spent the war time with his parents in Great Britain. The physicist emeritus since 1999 was most recently director at the German climate computing center in Hamburg. The Hanseatic League had not foreseen the Nobel Prize, but he predicted the climate crisis as early as 1995 at the Berlin Climate Conference.

Climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann is sitting in his apartment.  The Nobel Prize for Physics this year goes to the German Klaus Hasselmann, Syukuro Manabe (USA) and the Italian Giorgio Parisi for physical models of the earth's climate.  (picture alliance / dpa | Georg Wendt)Climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann receives a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2021 (picture alliance / dpa | Georg Wendt)

Klaus Hasselmann 1995 on the danger of climate change

Syukuro Manabe was born in southern Japan in 1931. He studied and received his doctorate in Tokyo before moving to the United States in 1958. There the scientist, who is now also a US citizen, first worked for various weather authorities before moving to the renowned Princeton University, where the ninety-year-old still works and teaches.

A prize was even named after the laureate for his pioneering work in the field of climate research. The “Syukuro Manabe Climate Research Award” presented by the American Association of Meteorologists honors researchers who make outstanding contributions to the understanding of the Earth’s climate system.

The announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics

Since it was first awarded in 1901, the Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded 114 times. Among the 216 laureates, only four are women, including last year’s winner, the American astronomer Andrea Ghez. She shared the award with the German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel and the British Roger Penrose. The three were honored for their research on black holes.

The Nobel Week at a glance

The Nobel Prize is internationally recognized as one of the most important scientific awards. At the start of Nobel Week, the Award winners in the Medicine / Physiology category announced. This year’s award is shared by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for research into sensory receptors. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded on Wednesday. The Literature Prize follows on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and the Economics award on Monday.

[Quellen: Nobelpreis-Komitee, Anneke Meyer]

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