Dr. Syukuro Manabe, who single-handedly started research on global warming prediction in the 1960s and has been a world leader in this field ever since, has been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. When Dr. Manabe himself heard the news, he said "I am totally surprised!”, and I am also very much surprised, but spontaneously clapping my hands, shouting “You did it! “. This is because the Nobel Prize in Physics has so far been awarded only in fields that are collectively known as "modern physics," such as quantum physics (represented by the theory of elementary particles), condensed matter physics, and cosmology and/or astrophysics.
As a student of geophysics in the Faculty of Science, I was surrounded by students and professors of "(modern) physics imperialism" who believed that geophysics (such as meteorology, oceanography, hydrology, seismology and so on) were "one rank lower" unsophisticated or archaic disciplines based on classical physics.
Has the wind changed in the 21st century, with the crisis of the Earth and the Anthropocene? Global and local environmental problems are caused by a complex, non-linear and diverse range of physical phenomena. Of course, it is not just physics, but also chemistry and biology that make the environmental problems even more complex. It could be argued that 'smart' modern physics has in fact developed by avoiding all these complex and unmanageable phenomena and processes. Those who choose physics for their university entrance exams may have been told: ""Solve for xxx, but with the assumption that there shall be no friction.” In fact, friction, viscosity, turbulence and other cumbersome processes, which modern physics is most uncomfortable with and has avoided, play an important role in global climate and weather phenomena.
One of the most important contributions of Dr. Manabe's research has been the development of a climate model that incorporates the atmosphere, ocean and land surface and their couplings. How are the atmospheric circulation and oceanic circulation connected, and how do heat and water exchange take place between the earth surface and the atmosphere? How do clouds play energy and water processes in climate? The key players in these processes are friction, viscosity and turbulence, and it is essential that climate models have to incorporate these processes as accurately and tactfully as possible.
Dr. Manabe has developed a model that calculates these processes for the entire surface of the Earth, using mathematical equations based on theory and experience (observed facts). By inputting the increase in greenhouse gases into such a model, he has made it possible for the first time to discuss what the global climate will be like in 100 years. The IPCC's Sixth Report, published this year, could show the precisely predicted global to regional climate at the end of the century made by the latest sophisticated climate models in the world, but surprisingly, Dr. Manabe had already made almost identical predictions in his paper published in 1975, albeit with far less spatial accuracy. In this sense, the Nobel Prize in Physics is long overdue, as Dr. Manabe's modelling of climate has created a "new physics" that provides a Earth's climate and its variability, as a familiar yet complex, diverse and non-linear system.
I have to add another thing here. When he received the award, Dr. Manabe emphasized in his interview the importance of “intellectual curiosity” in science. In the past few years, at our institute (RIHN) there has been a strong emphasis on "solution-oriented" research, and there is a strong feeling that "finding and understanding of unknown phenomena" research driven by curiosity is not the subject of research that should be conducted at RIHN.
I believe, however, that these two research are inextricably linked. Dr. Manabe himself has stated that "I have been doing curiosity-driven research, not to solve the global warming.” However, in my long association with Dr. Manabe, I have a strong sense that his curiosity is based on his awareness of the problem of how the Earth's climate allows us humans (and other organisms) to survive. As a researcher of nature and human society as a complex system, I am reminded that "phenomena to be clarified" and "problems to be solved" should always be understood as one big integrated issue.
January 22, 2013 at Nagoya University
(Left) Dr. Yasunari (Right) Dr. Manabe