Nobel prize for physics is a game-changer

The 2021 Nobel prize in physics, shared by three laureates, means the conversation about climate change should no longer be about debating the science itself or whether climate change is real, but rather on what we should be doing about it.  One half of the prize was jointly awarded to oceanographer Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University in the US and Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. (The other half went to Giorgio Parisi.)

Back in the 1960s, Manabe pioneered the use of computers to simulate global climate change and natural climate variations. This led to the development of physical models of the Earth’s climate and demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. 

About ten years later, Hasselmann created a model that links weather and climate, thus answering the question of why climate models can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic.

Their joint award was made “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming”. This achievement in basic science research laid the foundation for the development of current climate models, knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it. 

The other award recipient is theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi, of the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales”. Parisi’s methods and models of theoretical physics show that if you support this field of the basic sciences it’s an investment in solving some of the Earth’s most pressing problems. For decades, theoretical physicists have been warning us about the path we are going down; without them we would be destroying our planet blindly.

Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel committee for physics, said: “The discoveries being recognised this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations.”

An affirmation of accepted science

The award raises two quintessential issues about where research needs to be focused. The first issue is the reaffirmation of the accepted science: that is, the phenomena driving climate change are well known from basic sciences research: it’s basic physics, playing out in the ever-changing atmosphere. 

This means the conversation about climate change should no longer be about debating the science itself or whether climate change is real, but rather on what we should be doing about it. While the science of climate change is clear, scientists and experts from all backgrounds should be heard, including the humanities and social sciences, private sector, policy makers and environmentalists.

Focus on the basic sciences

The second issue highlighted by this year’s prize is a loud call for the protection and promotion of the basic sciences, including the biological sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics, computer science, and the geological sciences (clustered broadly as mathematical, physical, and life sciences). To understand the Earth and the universe’s complex systems requires a solid foundation in the basic sciences.

We have a duty to protect and nurture the basic sciences, and this is an international concern. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has highlighted that the basic sciences are being neglected worldwide.

What is highly concerning is that this neglect has led to a state of serious vulnerability in certain disciplines. In some cases (for instance, mathematics and statistics), employers cannot find qualified candidates for jobs that require these, and there is a lack of senior academic staff to teach these subjects, especially at a postgraduate level.

Currently in the sciences there is a strong focus on supporting and developing emerging research areas in the country (such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, et cetera) and technology-intense applied sciences (space science, information and communication technology, and energy). 

The basic sciences disciplines have been left in the cold. The reason they have not been getting anything near sufficient support in terms of funding is because it is very difficult to convince governments and funding agencies to properly resource fields that take time to yield results. 

Only now are gravitational waves being detected, as Einstein predicted in 1916. Inventions like GPS would not work unless we drew on Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Our faculty of science strategy 2030 at the Nelson Mandela University calls for the promotion, protection and resourcing of the basic sciences to give scientists the time and space to develop groundbreaking innovative ideas that lead to major breakthroughs. They sometimes take decades and we need to stop forcing our scientists to come up with solutions now!

If we look at Manabe and Hasselmann’s research, almost half a century later their models are being recognised. Once again, they show us that if you are pursuing any of the earth sciences, including ocean sciences, you need a strong foundation in basic science subjects like physics. Otherwise you won’t solve the most important problems afflicting our oceans. 

This was our thinking in establishing our department of atmospheric and oceanographic sciences in our faculty of science, which will partner with our recently established ocean sciences campus in continuing the quest laid by the three Nobel laureates. 

It’s a very exciting time. Major scientific breakthroughs have happened over the past five years. The detection of gravitational waves from faraway galaxies as a result of the black hole collisions and neutron star collisions led to a Nobel prize in 2017. 

The Nobel prize in physics 2019 was awarded “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”.

Through our science engagement strategy, the faculty of science at Nelson Mandela University has been focusing on debating and training students in these very fields that end up earning Nobel prizes, including gravitational waves, black holes and the impacts and realities of climate change. 

What we need to do now as a country and university sector is to provide the necessary resources and grow the pipeline of postgraduates to participate in finding solutions to grand challenges and securing a Nobel prize in physics for Africa.

Physicists today, for example, are busy with modelling the early universe with direct links to the science of the square kilometre array (SKA), where most of the data is going to be gathered and where most of the data scientists are going to be needed. We should be putting resources into the theoretical and computational sciences research and training that will be required for the SKA and other national key projects, as not only is this research at the cutting edge of new breakthroughs, it is part of the future world of work in South Africa and globally. 

We need our scientists to be properly funded instead of worrying about where they can apply for a grant. Manabe, for example, never saw the need to apply for a grant; his work has been well supported through the provision of computing facilities. 

We need postgraduate scholarships that cover our young researchers’ needs so that they can focus on their studies and not be worried about where they can get their next meal. If we do not resource this, other countries will fill the space and they will reap the future Nobel prizes using the facilities in our backyard, such as the SKA.

There is some hope. The government’s department of science and innovation is playing a role in the promotion and protection of the basic sciences through the establishment of the National Institute of Theoretical and Computational Sciences, previously the National Institute for Theoretical Physics, but we need it to be supported with resources so that our scientists can help unlock the future for humanity. If the institute is not well resourced then it will only be known to a few elite individuals and not the South African public, continent and world at large.

Additionally, in terms of groundbreaking models, if we look at the Covid-19 pandemic, we see that physicists around the world have developed models to guide governments. In South Africa and continent-wide we have teams working on this and among these teams are several physicists, especially theoretical physicists, modelling Covid-19 for African countries. The rapid identification of what causes Covid-19 and the development of vaccines is due to basic, curiosity-driven scientific research done over the decades and centuries. Without this the pandemic would have been far worse.

This year’s Nobel prize is a challenge to physicists in Africa. This challenge is coming at an opportune time as the physics community is coming together to chart the future of physics through the African Strategy on Fundamental and Applied Physics.

100 years of physics in Africa

Next year we will celebrate 100 years of the birth of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics and Nelson Mandela University will host the joint African Conference on Physics and the South Africa Institute of Physics Conference (4 – 8 July 2022) and the African School of Physics (in the first two weeks of December 2022). The theme of these events will be 100 years of physics in Africa – looking at the past, the present and the future, with celebrations around the world.  

Nelson Mandela University will join the South Africa Institute of Physics and other institutions in South Africa and the Southern Africa Development Community region in putting the spotlight on the link between the basic sciences and the sustainable development goals in meeting crucial challenges such as universal access to food, health coverage and communication technologies.

To emphasise the indispensability of the basic sciences, Unesco has adopted a resolution to proclaim 2022 as the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development.

We have to start looking at the future and contributing positively to the protection of our complex physical systems for the benefit of all life, including humankind.

It gives us permission to hope for a better world, and what we can achieve. 

There are no laws of science that demand poverty, inequality, and destruction. These are human-made phenomena and humans can end them. Grand challenges of climate change and pandemics will require the sciences, humanities, governments and civil society to work together. 

Science is hope.

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Azwinndini Muronga
Professor Azwinndini Muronga is the executive dean of science at Nelson Mandela University

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