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How Did A Science On The Sideline Strike The Lottery?

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The Nobel Prize in Physics 2021 was awarded “for ground-breaking contributions to our understanding of complex systems”, with one half jointly to Syukuro Manabe (“Suki”) and Klaus Hasselmann “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”, and the other half to Giorgio Parisi “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.”

As soon as the news of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced, my circle of friends and I were bubbling over with excitement in our WeChat group. To quote the self-deprecating ridicule by a senior fellow colleague, Dr Huang, a professor at the University of Michigan: “We are in such a marginal discipline, and even we can win the lottery!”

 

In fact, the field of atmospheric science has received two Nobel Prizes: the 1995 Chemistry Award for the discovery of the mechanism of stratospheric ozone holes (considering that atmospheric chemistry is a relatively new and marginal branch of atmospheric science); and the 2007 Peace Prize in recognition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team, an award that acknowledges the efforts of climatologists but is of little significance from the scientific point of view. But this time around, the Nobel Prize in Physics clearly recognises the core research methods and theories in the field of atmospheric sciences in the past few decades and is thus particularly significant to us.

[Suki] led the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate and was the first person to explore the interaction between radiation balance and the vertical transport of air masses. His work laid the foundation for the development of current climate models.

Even Syukuro “Suki” Manabe himself was surprised. Suki is a senior meteorologist in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Programme (the programme in which I pursued my Ph.D.), co-operated by Princeton University and the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After Suki received the call from Oslo that morning, he said, “Usually, the Nobel Prize in physics is awarded to physicists making a fundamental contribution in physics. Yes, my work is based on physics, but it’s applied physics – Geophysics. This is the first time the Nobel Prize has been awarded for the kind of work I have done: the study of climate change.”

 

However, Suki did conduct pioneering work in physical science. When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced his award, it stated: “Syukuro Manabe demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. He led the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate and was the first person to explore the interaction between radiation balance and the vertical transport of air masses. His work laid the foundation for the development of current climate models.”

 

Suki is one of the founding scientists of GFDL and a world-renowned climate model leader. I was a Ph.D. student at GFDL from 2005 to 2010 and was very fortunate to have met and worked with him, as well as with many other passionate climate scientists. In this article, I would like to pay tribute to him by sharing what I know about him and his work.

Suki Manabe at the media conference held at Princeton University on 5 October 2021, in recognition of his Nobel Prize award. Of his work he said, “I was doing it just because of my curiosity. I really enjoyed studying climate change. Curiosity is the thing which drives all my research activity.” Photo: Associated Press

Suki Manabe and his wife Nobuko Manabe at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm for the 2018 Crafoord Prize. Photo: Twitter @vetenskapsakad

Suki was born on September 21, 1931, in a rural area in Shingu City, Ehime Prefecture, Japan. He was the youngest son of a doctor. His grandfather was also a doctor. When he was young, he naturally wanted to be a doctor too. He graduated from high school early and enrolled in six years of medical school, but then the Japanese education system changed, so Suki re-entered the University of Tokyo in 1949. He began to realise that his interest in biology was not enough for him to learn it in-depth. He was also not confident in his hands-on experimental skills and felt that there were too many “smart” people in theoretical physics. On the other hand, he was attracted to the study of interesting phenomena in geophysics, a field he subsequently decided to pursue. He received his undergraduate, master and doctorate degrees in geophysics from the University of Tokyo in 1953, 1955 and 1958 respectively.

 

Japan was in ruins after World War II, and it was difficult to find a job. After graduating in 1958, Suki accepted an invitation by Dr Joseph Smagorinsky of the US National Weather Service and moved to the US to work in their General Circulation Research Section in Washington, DC in that fall.

After earning a Ph.D. in 1958, Suki became a research meteorologist at the US Weather Bureau (later the National Weather Service), where he explored the use of physics in developing weather models. Source: Priceton University

This Section was the predecessor of the current GFDL, and the National Weather Service the predecessor of the current NOAA. Dr Joseph Smagorinsky is himself also a legend. He was the founder and the first director of the GFDL, leading it until his retirement in January 1983. Smagorinsky’s key insight was that the increasing power of computers would allow researchers to move beyond simulating weather toward the simulation of the Earth’s climate, to study how climate was controlled by the atmospheric composition, the character of the Earth’s surface, and the circulation of the oceans. He believed that individual inquiries were inadequate for addressing such a complex problem, so he invited many creative scientists to the GFDL – including some Japanese scientists such as Suki – while the nation was still leery of Japan.

 

Suki worked at the National Weather Service in Washington, DC until 1963. While he was there, he married Nobuko Manabe. At the press conference for the Nobel Prize in Physics at Princeton University, Suki said that his wife cooked delicious meals and that he enjoyed them every day. Suki also admitted that he was very bad at driving, but that his wife was a great driver. He felt fortunate that Nobuko disciplined their children very well, allowing him to focus 100% on research. This kind of gratitude has been expressed by Suki on many occasions. (Please join me in saluting this gentle but great lady who has quietly supported the giant of science while excelling in her own career. Nobuko is a certified instructor for Japanese tea ceremony and teaches Omotesenke Japanese tea ceremony in her own Omotesenke School of Tea in Princeton, New Jersey.)

The development of the radiative-convective model was a critical step towards the development of a comprehensive general circulation model (GCM).

Table 5 in “Thermal Equilibrium of the Atmosphere with a Given Distribution of Relative Humidity” in Journal of the Atmosphere Sciences, Vol. 24, No. 3, May 1967.

In 1963, Suki went to Princeton University to help lead the GFDL. He focused mainly on the atmospheric component in the development of a three-dimensional climate model. Smagorinsky recruited many programmers for Suki so that he could focus on the mathematical and physical structure of the model without being overly involved in coding. Suki’s first step was to include water vapour in his single-column model of the atmosphere in radiative-convective equilibrium. Using this model, he and Richard Wetherald (meteorologist, 1936-2011) published a paper in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences in 1967. This seminal paper was voted by climate scientists as the most influential paper in climate science. It is said that their first climate-change experiment with this model was not to study the role of CO2. It intended to examine the effects of water vapour injected high into the stratosphere by supersonic jets. In the wake of the Second World War, another immediate concern deemed necessary for study at that time was the effects of debris from nuclear explosions in the stratosphere.

 

Table 5 in the paper goes down in history as the first robust estimate of how much the world would warm if CO2 concentrations doubled. Manabe and Wetherald estimated 2.360C of warming, not far off today’s best estimate of 30C. Suki’s simple model accurately redistributed water vapour in a way that real deep clouds do, with water vapour broadly increasing in concentration up to a certain level of humidity. This increase was found to amplify the warming from CO2 by around 75%. This estimate of water vapour feedback has also stood the test of time.

 

The development of the radiative-convective model was a critical step towards the development of a comprehensive general circulation model (GCM). Suki and his collaborators continued to expand the GCM and used it to simulate, for the first time, the three-dimensional response of temperature and the hydrologic cycle to increased CO2. In 1969 Suki and Kirk Bryan (a pioneering oceanographer) published the first simulations of the climate using a coupled ocean-atmosphere model. Suki further explored the role of CO2 in the Earth’s climate and how its increase would contribute not only to increasing global temperatures and ocean acidity, but also to rising sea levels and changing precipitation patterns. This work led to another landmark paper in 1975, which refined the earlier models by representing additional elements of the atmosphere-landocean climate system and demonstrated an even higher rate of global warming given increasing atmospheric CO2. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Suki and his team published important papers using the coupled atmosphere-ocean models to investigate the time-dependent response of climate to changing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Predictions of climate change without really understanding it is really no better than the prediction of a fortune teller.

Following the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics, Suki was interviewed on the telephone by the Nobel Prize Outreach team. In the interview, he said that when he started to learn geophysics, weather and climate studies were more like an art rather than a science. It is based on the efforts of generations of scientists, including his, that researchers today can finally use numerical modelling to study the complex weather-climate systems using solid science. There are those out there who claim that he (and climate science) owes the Nobel Prize to today’s global warming politics. But I do not agree. In the 1960s, Suki did not build the climate model for global warming advocacy – he built the model to help understand the earth’s climate system. As he said in the interview, predictions of climate change without really understanding it is really no better than the prediction of a fortune teller. Thanks to his climate model and the numerical experiments that came with it, mankind can finally understand the climate change crisis of today, why it has happened, how it is happening everywhere, and what will happen in the future.

The 1969 photograph shows the young Suki Manabe and oceanographer Kirk Bryan (left) talking with Joseph Smagorinsky (right), the first director of GFDL who moved the lab to its current home at Princeton University. Suki and Kirk began to develop a general circulation model of the coupled atmosphere ocean-land system in the late 1960s, which eventually became a powerful tool for the simulation of global warming. Photo courtesy of the GFDL

Suki became a tenured professor at Princeton University in 1968. His tenure was guaranteed by the government and jointly supported by the University. The GFDL ensured Suki’s access to continued, worry-free research funding, technical manpower and world-class computing resources. Suki mentioned in an interview with the American Physical Society that he had never written any research proposal, not even internally. On top of that, Princeton University provided him with opportunities to recruit the best graduate students, and to collaborate with other top researchers.

 

The first Princeton graduate student advised by Suki, Dr Isaac Held, is now a GFDL professor I admire. A member of the American Academy of Sciences, Isaac’s research focuses on atmospheric dynamics. His 2006 paper on the hydrological response to global warming was voted the second most influential climate paper (after his adviser Suki’s 1967 paper), and it greatly influenced one of my Ph.D. papers published in 2011. Isaac was so talented that Suki initially got the incorrect impression that advising students was an easy task. Isaac also spoke highly of his adviser. He said: ” I am impressed by his intuitiveness for the climate system… He was way ahead of the curve. All of his ideas really – just about all of them – have turned out to be correct and foundational to the subject.”

 

Suki became a US citizen in 1975. At the Nobel Prize press conference hosted by Princeton University, a Japanese reporter asked him a rather direct question: “Why did you choose to become an American?” Suki was very sincere in his reply. He said he found Japanese society too harmonious, and everyone cared too much about other people’s opinions. He said he was not suited to such a harmonious atmosphere because he prefers being simple and straightforward, and he enjoys the freedom in doing scientific research. In fact, after his retirement from GFDL in 1997, he was invited to work in Japan as the Director of the Global Warming Research Project of the Frontier Research Center for Global Change. However, he returned to Princeton in 2002, apparently because he had a hard time fitting into the Japanese work culture.

 

At the same Nobel Prize press conference, another Japanese reporter asked Suki for his suggestions for improvement in the Japanese scientific research system. This was a difficult question. After some thought, Suki said that scientific research in Japan is not as driven by curiosity as in the United States. He felt that the US National Academy of Sciences has done a better job in advising and communicating with the government.

Despite his many achievements, Suki is simple, unpretentious, and approachable. He always shows a strong curiosity and genuine interest in the research of young climate scientists.

Suki is a true scientist. For him, climate science is as a child’s most beloved toy. He has always held it with love. At the Nobel Prize press conference, he said that scientific research should be driven by curiosity. He did not hesitate to express his enthusiasm for climate science and called on everyone to use climate models to study climate science. Suki’s life passion has been climate research. I was told that after Suki’s retirement, he did not want to be bothered by mail, so he stamped “Deceased” on all the letters he received and returned them!

 

When a reporter asked Suki why he felt he was awarded the Nobel Prize this time, he answered in his trademark mischievous style, “I looked at the list of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics and said, gosh, these guys have made truly outstanding contributions. Then I look at my own work – surely I am not comparable with these people…! This award is really a big surprise. But on the other hand, considering the current world crises – the climate crisis, the COVID crisis, both of which are major crises of mankind, maybe this award is for me to understand why these crises and problems arose. So maybe it’s fine for me to be given this award!” His reply delighted the host and the audience.

 

When I was a Ph.D. student in Princeton, I often saw Suki during seminars. With a pen and notebook in hand, he always sat in the front row of the lecture hall. He would listen attentively to the speaker and take notes very seriously. He often asked questions. Observing him then, I felt that it must be wonderful to continue doing scientific research into one’s seventies and eighties! Tom Delworth, a senior scientist at GFDL who was often in the same lecture hall as me and Suki, viewed Suki as the “Michael Jordan of climate”. Like Jordan for his own field, what Suki accomplished has elevated the entire field of climate science to its standing today.

In Beyond Global Warming, Suki and atmospheric scientist Anthony Broccoli show how climate models have been used as virtual laboratories for examining the complex planetary interactions of atmosphere, ocean and land. Suki and Broccoli use these studies as the basis for a broader discussion of human-induced global warming — and what the future may hold for a warming planet. Photo: Associated Press

Despite his many achievements, Suki is simple, unpretentious, and approachable. He always shows a strong curiosity and genuine interest in the research of young climate scientists. When he was on campus, he often walked with a group of students to have lunch in a cafeteria two kilometres away, and he would be the one who spoke the most in the group.

 

There have been many eloquent climate scientists who were able to gain much media attention for climate science, but the type I admire most are those like Suki – a little shy, modest, and always in search of better answers.

 

Finally, I wish to recommend a book written by Suki and his colleague, Anthony J. Broccoli Beyond Global Warming: How Numerical Models Revealed the Secrets of Climate Change. In this book, Suki explains how climate models have been used as virtual laboratories to examine the complex planetary interactions among the atmosphere, oceans and land. Climate models help us understand global warming, but their scientific value extends way beyond that.

This article is dedicated to physicist Suki Manabe – 2021 Nobel Physics Prize Laureate, the scientist who shaped modern climate science research and the father of climate modelling. This article was written by Dr Yuanyuan Fang, with substantial contributions from Dr Xianglei Huang, Dr Yi Ming, and other members of PUTigersJr, a public WeChat account founded by a group of young parents – all alumni of Princeton University – for science popularisation, particularly for children. 

REFERENCES


  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2021/summary 
  2. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2021/10/05/princetons-syukuro-manabe-receives-nobel-prize-physics 
  3. https://scholar.princeton.edu/manabe/cv-0 
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syukuro_Manabe 
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smagorinsky 
  6. https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/historymakers/ Smagorinsky/#adopt 
  7. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5040 
  8. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/32158-1 
  9. https://theconversation.com/the-most-influential-climate-science-paper-of-all-time-169382 
  10. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/beyond-the-winners-nobel-prize-for-climate-science-is-a-victory-for-many1 
  11. https://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/tag/manabe 
  12. https://www.carbonbrief.org/prof-john-mitchell-how-a-1967-study-greatly-influenced-climate-change-science 
  13. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2021/manabe/interview 
  14. Suki’s list of major publications: 
  15. https://scholar.princeton.edu/manabe/pubs 
  16. https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/199801/heisenberg.cfm 

ON THE CONTRIBUTION OF ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE TO PHYSICS

Atmospheric Science is a small and highly interdisciplinary field and is often overlooked in physical science. As shown in the following family tree of Physics, it is classified as Earth Science and placed at the bottom of the pyramid of physical science. 

Family Tree of Physics

Adapted from “100 Years of Quantum Mysteries” in Scientific American, February 2001 by Max Tegmark and John Archibald Wheeler

Some important physical concepts were first proposed in the field of climate science, and then applied in almost all fields of physics. For example, it was weather research that revealed what Chaos really is; small perturbations in the atmosphere can cause enormous climate changes. This was discovered by meteorologist, Edward Norton Lorenz (1938-2008). His article “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” was published in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences in 1963. To date, we have already seen Chaos at work in the fields of economics, aerodynamics, population biology, thermodynamics, chemistry and, of course, in the world of biomedicine. According to Google, Lorenz’s paper has been cited nearly 25,000 times.

Another example, stochastic resonance, is slightly less well-known. This concept was put forward by Roberto Benzi in an article in 1982 in order to explain the 100,000-year glacier cycle in paleoclimate, and was later applied in many branches of physics, biology and medicine. The second author, theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi, is the third winner of 2021 Nobel Physics Prize. The citation of this article may not seem high because it is too pioneering. A 1998 review article on this topic has been cited more than 6,600 times.

The difficulty of atmospheric science is that it is ultimately a chaotic turbulence problem. A complete description of turbulence is one of the unsolved problems in physics. However, because it is related to the survival of all living things on the entire planet, atmospheric scientists are obliged to take the lead in the frontier of turbulence study. The successful development of the existing climate models is based on the pursuit of numerical methods by several generations of atmospheric scientists to simulate turbulence. One major contribution by the GFDL’s founding director Dr Smagorinsky and his colleagues was the development of the Large Eddy Simulation, the first practical technique to explain atmospheric turbulence in numerical models. For more details on explaining turbulence and climate patterns, please refer to Martin Beniston’s book From Turbulence to Climate published by Springer.

Coming back to the Family Tree of Physics (see left), relativity and quantum mechanics are at the top of the pyramid. Theoretical physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics, Dr Werner Heisenberg, wrote his doctoral thesis on turbulence. It is a 59-page calculation titled “On the Stability and Turbulence of Liquid Currents”. It was an extremely difficult mathematical problem, so difficult that Heisenberg offered only an approximate solution. Rumour has it that he was asked on his deathbed what he would ask God. His reply was: "When I meet God, I will ask Him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I believe He already has an answer for the first question." If this were true, we climate scientists should take consolation that our field of study is up there at the same level as Relativity!

DR YUANYUAN FANG

Dr Yuanyuan Fang is an Atmospheric Scientist. She works on scientific problems related to atmospheric composition, including air pollutants and greenhouse gases – species that are key to the environment, climate, ecosystem and mankind, using models and observations. She has published 30+ peer-reviewed papers on air pollution, climate change, carbon cycle and health.

After many years of research on continental-global scale problems, she joined the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, where she expects her expertise to have immediate positive impacts on the public. Her current work is to understand and improve air quality for all Bay Area residents, especially the disadvantaged communities.

Yuanyuan Fang was a Senior Research Associate in the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University. She was a Science, Technology and Environmental Policy (STEP) fellow in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs. She received her Ph.D. from the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program in Princeton University in 2010, after spending five years in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab.

DECEMBER 2021 | ISSUE 9

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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