Science and Technology
The 2021 Nobel science prizes and the winners are......
This year’s Nobel prizes brought both delight and disbelief
Important work was honoured, but there was a surprising omission
SCIENTISTS SOMETIMES refer elliptically to winning a Nobel prize as “the trip to Stockholm”. Not this year, it isn’t.
The white-tie award ceremony in the Concert Hall, the splendid banquet in the City Hall and—for those who can last the pace, the equally splendid unofficial after-party in the students’ union of one of Stockholm’s universities (they rotate the honour) are all cancelled, just as they were last year.
That will probably not, however, diminish the joy of this year’s laureates. They will be on cloud nine already, having snagged the most famous awards in science.
The physics prize went to three researchers who have studied complex, chaotic and apparently random systems and developed ways to predict their long-term behaviour, with implications ranging from how to study the climate to the exploitation of exotic materials.
Half of the award of SKr10m (about $1.1m) was shared by Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University and Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, in Hamburg.
1000万瑞典克朗（约合110万美元）奖金的一半由普林斯顿大学的真锅淑郎（Syukuro Manabe）和克劳斯·哈塞尔曼（Klaus Hasselmann）共享。
The other half went to Giorgio Parisi of Sapienza, the principal university in Rome.
Drs Manabe and Hasselmann laid the foundations of the modelling of Earth’s climate that led to “quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”, according to the Nobel Committee for Physics of Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science.
Dr Parisi was awarded his share for discoveries around the “interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”.
In the 1960s Dr Manabe, an atmospheric scientist, wove together emerging strands of understanding of the dynamics and thermodynamics of Earth’s atmosphere to make the first reliable prediction that doubling the level of carbon dioxide present would also increase the planet’s surface temperature.
His work led to the development of physical models of Earth’s climate and laid the foundation for the climate models used today.
Around the same time, scientists such as Edward Lorenz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were beginning to describe weather as a chaotic system—in other words, something that had so many interacting individual components, such as temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed, that even small variations in initial conditions could result in enormous differences at a later stage.
In this description, weather evolved rapidly and became essentially unpredictable even just a few days into the future.
In the 1970s Dr Hasselmann developed models to show how weather, despite being chaotic and unpredictable in the short-term, could yield reliable models to foreshadow Earth’s climate over much longer periods.
In describing his work he made an analogy to Brownian motion, the jostling movement of pollen grains in water that was first observed down a microscope by Robert Brown, a botanist, in 1827.
Almost 80 years later, Albert Einstein posited that the slow zigzagging of such grains could be explained by their continual bombardment by much tinier, fast-moving water molecules.
The large-scale climate can similarly be seen as a consequence of numerous smaller events.
Around 1980 Dr Parisi found some of the rules that govern apparently random phenomena.
He studied a type of material called “spin glass”, in which, for example, iron atoms are mixed at random into a matrix of copper atoms.
The iron atoms each behave as tiny magnets but, whereas in a normal lump of magnetised metal their north-south poles all point in the same direction, in a spin glass they do not.
Dr Parisi devised a way to understand how they find their optimal orientations.
His mathematical ideas not only help explain some of the complex systems of Earth’s climate, as described by his two fellow laureates, but also illuminate other apparently random phenomena in fields as diverse as animal behaviour, neuroscience and machine learning.
This year’s physics prize is the first scientific Nobel awarded for understanding of the climate.
Asked if this was a not-so-subtle message to world leaders ahead of the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, members of the award committee said the prize was meant to celebrate the discoveries themselves.
But, they added, it also showed that the modelling of the climate and the notion of global warming rest on solid physical science.
Human beings can no longer say they did not know how or why Earth is heating up.