Physics Nobel rewards work on complex systems, such as climate

STOCKHOLM — Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday for work finding order in apparent disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including increasing our understanding of climate change.

In recognition of the climate challenges his work helped reveal, Hasselmann told The Associated Press that he “would rather have no global warming and no Nobel Prize.”

Across the Atlantic, Manabe told the AP it was “1,000 times” easier to figure out the physics behind climate change than get the world to do something about it.

But he noted those two things were related: Without understanding why the climate is changing — which is what his pioneering work has accomplished — predicting such a change is “no better than a fortuneteller’s prediction,” he said.

The award comes less than four weeks before the start of high-level climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, where world leaders will be asked to step up their commitments to curb global warming. The scientists used their moment in the spotlight to push for action.

“It is very urgent that we make very strong decisions and act at a very fast pace” in tackling global warming, Parisi said during the announcement. He made the call, even though his share of the award was for work in another field of physics.

All three scientists are working on so-called ‘complex systems’, of which the climate is just one example. But the prize goes to two fields that are opposite in many ways, though they share the goal of giving meaning to what seems random and chaotic so that it can be predicted.

Parisi’s work largely revolves around tiny subatomic particles and is somewhat esoteric, while the work of Manabe and Hasselmann deals with large-scale global forces that shape our daily lives.

The judges said Manabe, 90, and Hasselmann, 89, “have laid the foundation for our understanding of Earth’s climate and how human actions affect it.”

Beginning in the 1960s, Manabe, now based at Princeton University in New Jersey, created the first climate models that predicted what would happen if carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere. For decades, scientists had shown that carbon dioxide traps heat, but Manabe’s work offered details. It allowed scientists to eventually show how climate change will worsen and how quickly, depending on how much carbon pollution is spewed.

Manabe is such a pioneer that other climate scientists called his 1967 paper with the late Richard Wetherald “the most influential climate paper ever,” said NASA chief climate modeler Gavin Schmidt.

“Suki has paved the way for today’s climate science, not just the tool, but how to use it,” said Gabriel Vecchi, Princeton fellow climate scientist. “I can’t count the times I thought I’d come up with something new, and it’s in one of his papers.”

His models from 50 years ago “accurately predicted the warming that actually occurred over the next few decades,” said climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the Breakthrough Institute. Manabe’s work serves “as a warning to all of us that if we continue to emit carbon dioxide very seriously, we will lose their projections of a much warmer future.”

About a decade after Manabe’s first work, Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute of 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.

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

His work originally focused on so-called spin glass, a type of metal alloy whose behavior baffled scientists for a long time. Parisi, 73, discovered hidden patterns that explained the way it acted, and created theories that could be applied to other areas of research as well.

All three physicists used complex mathematics to explain and predict what appeared to be chaotic forces of nature called modelling.

“Physics-based climate models made it possible to predict the amount and pace of global warming, including some impacts such as rising seas, increased extreme rainfall and stronger hurricanes, decades before they could be observed,” said the German climate scientist and modeller Stefan Rahmstorf. He called Hasselmann and Manabe “pioneers” in this field.

When climate scientists from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former US Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, some who deny global warming dismissed it as a political move. Perhaps anticipating controversy, members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel laureates, emphasized that Tuesday was a scientific award. Both Manabe and Hasselmann worked on the climate panel’s first and several subsequent reports.

“It’s a physics prize. What we are saying is that climate modeling is firmly based on physical theory and known physics,” Swedish physicist Thors Hans Hansson said in the announcement.

For a scientist who trades in predictions, Hasselmann said the price caught him off guard.

“I was quite surprised when they called,” he said. “I mean, this is something I did many years ago.”

But Parisi said: “I knew there was a non-negligible possibility” to win.

The prize comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish crowns (more than $1.14 million). The money comes from a bequest from 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 about how the human body senses temperature and touch.

Awards will also be presented in the coming days for outstanding work in chemistry, literature, peace and economics.


Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland. Associated Press journalists Frank Jordans and Kerstin Sopke in Berlin, Ted Shaffrey in Princeton, New Jersey, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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