The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann, and Giorgio Parisi for discovering new methods to describe complex systems and predicting their long-term behavior, including the physics of Earth's climate and how it has changed due to the effects of human industrialization.
Half of the 10 million Swedish krona ($1.15 million) is divided between Manabe and Hasselmann. Manabe and his team showed that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to increased average temperatures around the surface of the Earth, which we are experiencing every day. Hasselmann created models that linked weather and climate. Both scientists and their teams' work are today at the very core of our climate models.
The other half goes to Giorgio Parisi. His work is also on complex systems but not on Earth's scale, rather within disordered complex materials such as spin glass. He and his team discovered hidden patterns, creating a physical and mathematical model that describes such a system, whose applications are used in understanding things like the motion of sand, but also neuroscience, and many technological applications.
“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. This year’s Laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems,” Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement.
The committee stressed that physics is not just merely about the ordered and (now) easily predictable system of planets going around the Sun. There are systems with a complexity that when first identified, felt they would always defy prediction.
The work of these dedicated scientists and their many collaborators shows that understanding and modeling these systems is possible. Those models are now informing us about how the world around us changes. This is particularly important now as at the end of this month, world leaders will meet in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference, where crucial decisions regarding how to tackle the climate crisis will be taken.
“It is very urgent, that we take very strong decisions and we move at a very strong pace. Because we are in a situation where we might have negative or positive feedback that might accelerate the increase in temperature. It is clear that for the future generations we have to act,” Professor Parisi, who works at the University of Rome La Sapienza, said during the press conference.
This article has been updated with new information.