Nobel Prize goes to physicists who model climate and complex systems

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

This year’s Nobel Prize in physics went to three scientists who were largely responsible for successfully modeling the world’s changing climate and understanding other complex systems.

Shared by Princeton University professor Syukuro Manabe; Hamburg’s Max Planck Institute professor, Klaus Hasselmann; and Giorgio Parisi, a professor at the Sapienza University in Rome; the prize was awarded “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales,” according to the awarding committee.

Manabe and Hasselmann laid the foundation for understanding Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it, according to the committee. Meanwhile, Parisi was rewarded for his contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes.

In the 1960s (yes, researchers knew about the prospect of global warming 50 years ago) Manabe showed how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth, the prize committee wrote. That research paved the way for the development of our modern climate models.

Then in the 1970s Hassselmann created a model linking climate and weather events, to show how climate models can be reliable while weather patterns change. Hasselmann also showed how events can be attributed to natural or manmade phenomenon.

A decade later, Giorgio Parisi made one of his many groundbreaking discoveries around the solution of the infinite range spin glass model. The arcane-sounding, highly theoretical solution has applications in biology and the construction of neural networks and novel materials.

Research spanning the fields of neuroscience, pure mathematics, artificial intelligence, and biology have been influenced by Parisi’s work.