published on 7 October 2021 in air

Starlings, climate and Nobel prizes

The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to two climatologists and one physicist. Syukuro Manabe, a naturalised Japanese-American, has studied how the increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is responsible for the rise in the earth’s temperature. It is precisely the greenhouse effect that we now know is at the root of climate change and the intensification of extreme events. Klaus Hasselman, from Germany, is also an oceanographer and has identified human activities as the main cause of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Manabe and Hasselman are also the scientists who were the first to use computers to simulate the complex systems that regulate the Earth’s climate, while Giorgio Parisi is the Italian physicist who studies complex systems and who for this reason won the Nobel Prize along with the other two scientists.

But what are complex systems? These are groups of interrelated elements that interact and behave in ways that may be random. This sounds very complex, but if we think of grains of sand falling in an hourglass, water molecules in a raging torrent, atoms in a gas, sardine shoals and flocks of birds, we can get an idea of what a complex system is. Indeed, it was the observation of the outwardly chaotic flight of starlings in the skies over Rome that gave Professor Parisi ideas for developing the mathematical rules that seek to bring order to chaos. The contribution of Giorgio Parisi’s research is not limited to the study of climate; the fields of application of his studies apply wherever there are complex systems: from biology to economics, from artificial intelligence to medicine.

The Nobel Prize awarded to the three scientists is a clear signal of the importance the Swedish Academy attaches to climate change. It is an emergency that needs to be addressed in an increasingly short time frame. Climate is a perfect example of a complex system, a very complicated mechanism driven by the Sun and the Earth’s movements and made up of equally complicated parts such as the wind, the oceans and life itself. Tampering with the levers of these mechanisms could lead to unpredictable consequences affecting the lives of all of us. Knowledge of these systems is of great importance, which is why the value of the research of Parisi, Manabe and Hasselman has been acknowledged by the most prestigious prize: the Nobel Prize.

What is the Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize is an award made to people who have benefited humankind through scientific research, literature, inventions, discoveries and commitment to peace. The prize is named after Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and inventor born in 1833 and famous for developing the formula for many explosives, such as nitroglycerine. Nobel became extremely rich thanks to these discoveries, which may be useful but which, unfortunately, when turned into weapons, cause death and destruction. Deeply troubled by this thought, and fearing that he would be remembered in posterity only as the inventor of bombs, the scientist decided to donate a large part of his money to those who had distinguished themselves by carrying out works for the benefit of mankind. Thus the Nobel Prize was established and, since 1901, has become the most prestigious and coveted award.

By Andrea Bellati

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