Nobel Prize in Physics rewards modeling climate and other complex systems

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics rewards “Revolutionary contributions to our understanding of complex systems”. Behind this expression hide phenomena that have long been debated, such as the evolution of the Earth’s climate under the influence of human activities. And others more confidential, such as the way in which atoms can organize themselves according to their magnetism, within an alloy.

The Nobel committee chose to share its prize. Half was awarded jointly to the Japanese-American Syukuro Manabe and the German Klaus Hasselmann “For the physical modeling of the Earth’s climate, the quantification of variability and the reliable prediction of global warming”, and the other half to the Italian Giorgio Parisi “For the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems, from the atomic scale to the planetary scale”.

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If the Nobel Peace Prize had already been awarded in 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and to US Vice-President Al Gore “For their efforts to increase and disseminate knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures necessary to counter this change”, this time, it is a part of the research which made it possible to found this knowledge which is honored.

“A little ahead of the other teams”

Syukuro Manabe was one of the pioneers in climate modeling. Now 90, he left the ruins of 1950s Japan for New Jersey. In Princeton, where John von Neumann launched the first computer projects, he will be able to push the first meteorological simulations towards the climatic field.

“He wondered what a model that would spin indefinitely would give.”, indicates the climatologist V. Balaji, who always rubbed shoulders with him in Princeton before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the teams into confinement.

Manabe is thus the first to model the movements of air masses in the atmosphere. In 1967, he simulated the increases in surface temperature induced by a doubling of the CO concentration2 of the atmosphere. In 1975, another flagship publication, where he manages this time to couple the behavior of the ocean and the atmosphere, “Already showed that the system was going to heat up”, indique V. Balaji.

In 1967, Syukuro Manabe showed that an increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 resulted in an increase in surface temperature.

“I have always been very inspired by his articles, by the clarity with which he posed all these problems successively, says climatologist Hervé Le Treut, from the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute. If we dared to compare it with the comic strip, it would be a bit like Hergé’s clear line, the search for salient points, with a certain form of scientific elegance. And always a little ahead of the other teams. “

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Nobel Prize in Physics rewards modeling climate and other complex systems