Nobel Prize in Physics won by 3 scientists for discoveries in climate and complex physical systems

The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three scientists. Syukuro Manabe of the U.S. and Japan and Klaus Hasselmann of Germany were cited for their work in the physical modelling of Earth's climate, while Giorgio Parisi of Italy won for his work to explain disorder in physical systems.

Winners are from the U.S. and Japan, Germany and Italy

Goran K. Hansson, centre, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and members of the Nobel Committee for Physics sit in front of a screen displaying the co-winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday in Stockholm. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work that found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.

Syukuro Manabe, a U.S. researcher originally from Japan, and Klaus Hasselmann of Germany were cited for their work in "the physical modelling of Earth's climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming." The second half of the prize went to Giorgio Parisi of Italy for explaining disorder in physical systems, ranging from those as small as the insides of atoms to the planet-sized.

In the face of the challenges of climate change, Hasselmann told The Associated Press he "would rather have no global warming and no Nobel Prize."

All three scientists work on what are known as "complex systems," of which climate is just one example. But the prize goes to two distinct fields of study that are opposite in many ways but share the goal of making sense of what seems random and chaotic in such a way that it can be predicted.

Parisi's work largely centres around tiny subatomic particles and is somewhat esoteric and academic, while the work by Manabe and Hasselmann is about large-scale global forces that shape our daily lives.

Laid foundation for current climate models

The judges said Manabe, 90, and Hasselmann, 89, "laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth's climate and how human actions influence it.

Starting in the 1960s, Manabe, now based at Princeton University in New Jersey, created the first climate models that forecast what would happen to the globe as carbon dioxide built up in the atmosphere. Scientists for decades had shown that carbon dioxide traps heat, but Manabe's work put specifics and prediction into that general knowledge. It allowed scientists to eventually show how climate change will worsen and how quickly depending on how much carbon pollution is spewed.

About a decade later, Hasselmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, helped explain why climate models can be reliable despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the weather. He also developed ways to look for specific signs of human influence on the climate.

Climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann waves to a photographer from his balcony in Hamburg, Germany, Tuesday, Oct.5, 2021, after he was named co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. (Marcus Brandt/dpa/The Associated Press)

Hasselmann said the problem with climate change is that it exists on such a large time scale that people have difficulty comprehending it.

"People tend to deny the problem until it's too late," Hasselman said.

Meanwhile, Parisi, of Sapienza University of Rome, "built a deep physical and mathematical model" that made it possible to understand complex systems in fields as different as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.

His work originally focused on so-called spin glass, a type of metal alloy in which the atoms are arranged in a way that changes the material's magnetic properties in apparently random ways that baffled scientists. Parisi, 73, was able to discover hidden patterns that explained this behaviour, theories that could be applied to other fields of research, too.

In their work, all three physicists used complex mathematics to explain and predict what seemed like chaotic forces of nature in computer simulations, called modelling. That modelling has given scientists such a solid understanding of those forces that, for instance, they can accurately predict weather a week out and warn about the climate decades in advance.

A national library employee shows the gold Nobel Prize medal awarded to the late novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in Bogota, Colombia, in 2015. Nobel Prizes are among the most prestigious awards in the world. The physics prize was awarded Tuesday. (Fernando Vergara/The Associated Press)

"Physics is all about modelling, finding mathematical stories, their equations that accurately reflect how nature works, and allows humanity to use science as its survival instinct," said Brown University physicist Jim Gates.

Some non-scientists have ridiculed modelling, but it has been key to tackling climate change.

"Physics-based climate models made it possible to predict the amount and pace of global warming, including some of the consequences like risings seas, increased extreme rainfall events and stronger hurricanes, decades before they could be observed. Klaus Hasselmann and Suki Manabe were pioneers in this area and personal role models for me," said German climate scientist and modeller Stefan Rahmstorf.

"We are now witnessing how their early predictions are coming true one after the other."

When climate scientists and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, some who deny global warming dismissed it as a political prize. Perhaps anticipating controversy, members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel, emphasized that it is a science prize.

"It's a physics prize. What we are saying is that the modelling of climate is solidly based on physical theory and well known physics," said Swedish physicist Thors Hans Hansson at the announcement.

Winner calls for 'urgent' action on global warming

While Parisi's work was not focused on climate, he issued an appeal to take action on the issue after the announcement.

"It's very urgent that we take very strong decisions and move at a very strong pace" in tackling global warming, he said.

Asked whether he expected to get the prize, Parisi said: "I knew there was a non-negligible possibility."

Giorgio Parisi opens a bottle of sparkling wine at the Accademia dei Lincei scientific institution in Rome on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, after being named co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 'the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.' (ecilia Fabiano/LaPresse/The Associated Press)

Hasselmann, for his part, expressed bewilderment.

"I do not really understand it, but it feels fantastic," he told the Swedish news agency TT.

"I do not think I have done too much research in my life, but I have had a lot of fun doing it with my colleagues," he continued. "It is enough for me that my research shows that humans have actually affected the climate."

In Manabe's hometown, the mayor heralded his win.

"I represent all the city residents to offer my heartfelt congratulations to Dr. Syukuro Manabe," said Minoru Shinohara, mayor of Shikokuchuo city. Manabe grew up in the city's Shingu village.

The winners were announced Tuesday by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize.

4 awards to come

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.44 million Cdn). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch. 

Over the coming days prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

With files from CBC News

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?