Three scientists win Nobel physics prize for climate discoveries

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday for work that helps to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.

r Syukuro Manabe, originally from Japan, and Dr 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 was awarded to Dr Giorgio Parisi, of Italy, for “the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”.

All three work on what are known as “complex systems”, of which climate is just one example. The judges said Dr Manabe (90) and Dr Hasselmann (89) “laid the foundation of our knowledge of Earth’s climate and how human actions influence it”.

Starting in the 1960s, Dr Manabe demonstrated how increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise global surface temperatures, laying the foundations for current climate models.

About a decade later, Dr Hasselmann created a model that helped explain why climate models can be reliable, despite the seemingly chaotic nature of the weather. He also developed new ways to look for specific signs of human influence on climate.

Dr Parisi “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.

Dr 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, the 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 they can accurately predict weather a week out and warn about the climate decades in advance.

Some non-scientists have attacked and ridiculed modelling, but it has been key to the way the world tackles one of its biggest problems: climate change.

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