Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi win 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists whose cumulative work can be summed up in two words: Climate change.

Half of the prize went to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann “for the physical modeling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.”

And the other half went to Giorgio Parisi “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.”

The Nobel Committee got Parisi on the line from his home in Rome to Stockholm, and when asked whether he had a message for politicians meeting at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, he said simply: “We have to act now.”

Complex science made simpler

On the surface of things, this year’s Physics Nobel Laureates have been recognized for some very complex science. And, indeed, it is.  

But at its heart lies a desire to turn complex and random, disordered systems — such as extreme weather events — on our planet into a simpler language that will allow us to understand and predict them.  

Thors Hans Hansson, a Professor of Theoretical Physics and chair of the Nobel Physics Committee said that was what physics was all about.  

It’s not just about describing electrical currents that flow predictably through a lamp to produce light. Or the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. It’s about using “basic theories of matter to explain complex phenomena and processes, like how glass is structured or the development of the Earth’s climate,” said Hansson. 

That takes “deep intuition” and “mathematical ingenuity,” said Hanssen, and this year’s Laureates are “true masters.”  

So, what did they do? 

First, there’s Syukuro Manabe, who in the 1960s began work to demonstrate how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth.  

Then about 10 years later, Klaus Hasselmann created a model that linked together weather and climate. This work explained why climate models “can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic,” writes the Committee.  

And perhaps most significantly for non-scientists, Hasselmann developed methods for identifying which natural phenomena and which human activities leave their mark on our global climate.

“His methods have been used to prove that the increased temperature in the atmosphere is due to human emissions of carbon dioxide,” writes the Committee.

Then in the 1980s, Giorgio Parisi discovered “hidden patterns in disordered complex materials.” That work contributed to the general theory of complex systems.

They make it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random materials and phenomena, not only in physics but also in other very different areas, such as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning,” the Committee writes. 

Parisi’s work may seem unconnected to climate science, but our climate is one of our most complex systems, and we use mathematics and increasingly machine learning to understand it better. So, it all comes together. 

The[se] discoveries demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation,” said Hanssen.

Manabe, Hasselmann and Parisi’s work has helped to explain complex physical systems

Who are the new Nobel Laureates?

Syukuro Manabe is a climatologist and meteorologist at Princeton University in the US. Manabe was one of the first to use computer modeling to study and explore the role of greenhouse gases in both maintaining and changing the thermal structure of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Klaus Hasselmann is a meteorologist at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany. Hasselmann is interested in the oceans and remote sensing of Earth’s climate with satellite technology.

Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, is a theoretical physicist with more than 500 scientific papers to his name. Parisi’s work has covered string theory, disordered systems and computer sciences.

The Physics Prize 

The Nobel Prize for Physics is one of two that have been awarded to the same person twice. The other is chemistry.

John Bardeen was the lucky engineer and physicist. He won the prize first in 1956 and then again in 1972, sharing it both times with two other researchers, and each time it was for work into semiconductors and semiconductivity.

In 2020, the prize was awarded for two discoveries:

Roger Penrose took half of the prize “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.”

And Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez shared the other half of the 2020 Physics Prize “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”

A prize-heavy week

The Physics Prize is only the second in a week of awards. 

It all started with Medicine on Monday. That was won by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. 

And on Wednesday, it’s Chemistry’s turn. 

Later in the week, there will be Nobel Prizes for Literature, Peace, and then Economic Sciences.

120 years of prize

The Nobel Prizes are in their 120th year. And over that time, it’s nurtured a reputation as being both secretive and rigorous. It very often awards its accolades to more than one person but a maximum of three. 

And while many scientists might quietly hope to get the recognition of a Nobel Prize one day, some have told DW it’s good enough to have one’s work associated with a Nobel Prize and let other scientists be the “victims” who sacrifice themselves and “bear all the burden of media hype to be there for a good cause.”

But the Committee is tough: If in any year it thinks no nominees are worth it, they reserve the right to let the prize money roll over into the next year. 

This year’s winners receive a cash prize of 10 million Swedish Krona (about €980,000), a Nobel Medal and a range of other trinkets.

But they will have to wait until December 10, because tradition also has it that the prizes are handed out at a gala dinner in Stockholm.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1901: When bones became visible

    The first Noble Prize in Physics was awarded to a German, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, for the discovery of x-rays. To this day, his discovery continues to bring broken bones to light or to root out painful tooth inflammations. The energy-rich rays can even identify cancer. Röntgen himself christened his discovery “x-rays,” but in German, they’re known today as “Röntgen rays.”

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1903: Decaying atoms

    Frenchman Antoine Henri Becquerel figured out that the atomic nuclei of certain heavy metals – like uranium pictured here – spontaneously decayed, thereby releasing energy-rich rays. What Becquerel had discovered was radioactivity. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre delved further into the phenomenon, with the Nobel Prize later being awarded to all three.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1921: Beams of light

    Amazingly, light is capable of dislodging tiny particles of metal. It was this photo-electric effect that Albert Einstein decided to look into further. Light and matter, he later said, are two sides of the same coin – and can even change from one to the other. Photons, in other words, can modify metal. Modern solar panels employ the same principle.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1956: The origin of modern computing

    Owners of smartphones, laptops and iPads can tip their caps to three Americans: William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. They built the first transistors: electronic circuits capable of lightning-quick changes from one condition to another. Computer processors such as this one here are comprised of millions of such circuits.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1964: Bundling light

    Aim a cluster of similar light rays in one direction and – voilà! – you’ve got a laser. Beyond light shows, lasers can cut metal and burn off skin lesions. For their contributions to laser technology, American Charles Townes and Russians Nikolai Bassov and Alexander Prokhorov received the Nobel Prize.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1967: Star fire

    Why do stars actually produce as much heat as they do? American Hans Bethe, originally born in Strasbourg, France, took a look at our own sun to answer that question. What he found was that stars “melt” hydrogen atoms into larger helium atoms. Atomic fusion, as it’s known, releases huge amounts of energy – bathing our planet, for example, in sunlight.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1971: Three-dimensional images

    Holograms were the brainchild of a Hungarian engineer named Dennis Gábor. For the first time, he constructed images in three dimensions. The pictures appear to float in space and to change form at the blink of an eye. But they’re not just beautiful to look at. They’re a useful anti-counterfeiting measure on modern currencies.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1986: Rendering the tiny visible

    Glimpses into the realm of the teeny-tiny are thanks to Ernst Ruska of Germany, the inventor of the electron microscope. His microscope is what makes shots like this one (a flea) so vivid. The resolution is 1,000 times higher than that of a comparable light microscope.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1988: Lightweight elementary particles

    Yes, neutrinos exist. And with the help of a particle accelerator, Americans Leon Max Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger found evidence that proved the existence of these extremely light buildings blocks of matter. Neutrinos almost never interact with particles on planet earth, making their experimental detection costly.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    1989: Do you know exactly what time it is?

    The foundation for extreme time-telling was laid by American Norman Ramsey. He helped to create the world’s most exact time-piece: the atomic clock. Over the course of one year, such a clock’s accuracy is compromised by only 25 billionths of a second. Four atomic clocks are located in Braunschweig, Germany, together setting the country’s official time.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2007: Big hard drives in small places

    Hard drives on laptops are getting smaller and smaller and smaller – and yet they manage to pack in ever-increasing data. The reason? Tremendous magnetic resistance. The effect was discovered by Peter Grünberg of Germany and Albert Fert of France, both of whom were awarded the Nobel Prize for it.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2009: No more dial-up modems

    Charles Kuen Kao, an American physicist of Chinese descent, developed the fiber optic cable. Information from a website or a telephone conversation is converted into ultra-short flashes of light, which are then deciphered back into electric impulses on the other end. Kao’s cables deliver information quickly and, crucially, do not bleed data along the way.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2011: Our faster-expanding universe

    That the universe will grow ever larger, ever faster was demonstrated by Americans Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess. The three scientists can’t say why the universe will do so. But whoever manages to answer that question will surely have a good shot at the next Nobel Prize in Physics.

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    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2013: The origins of mass

    Theoretical physicists François Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to particle physics. Theories they proposed independently of one other in the 1960s were confirmed in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider. The Higgs boson particle explains the origin of mass and fills a hole in the Standard Model of particle physics.

  • Blue-white LEDs

    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2014: Let there be (blue) light!

    Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the Physics Nobel for their development of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). This made white LEDs possible as bright and above all energy-saving light sources.

  • A Bosch ultra-short pulse laser removing material from a metal surface

    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2018: Ultra-short laser pulses and optical tweezers

    Lasers have become an indispensable part of our lives. With their research, Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou laid the foundation for ultra-short pulse lasers. This allows materials to be processed more finely than with any other tool. The two shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Arthur Ashkin, who had developed optical tweezers for investigating biological samples.

  • Exoplanet 1f um Trappist-1. An artist image by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

    Nobel Prize in Physics: Extraordinary phenomena

    2019: The discovery of exoplanets

    James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz have been awarded the Prize for their research on exoplanets and cosmology. In a statement, the Academy said the trio received the award for their “new understanding of the universe’s structure and history.” Since Mayor and Queloz discovered the first planet outside our solar system in October 1995, more than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered.

    Author: Brigitte Osterath

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