When Syukuro “Suki” Manabe began his career as a researcher in the middle of the last century, he had no idea his work would eventually be seen as laying the foundation for the modern science of climate modeling.
Instead, the 90-year-old says he was simply driven by curiosity.
On Tuesday, that curiosity was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in physics, which Manabe, a senior meteorologist at Princeton University, shared with two other scientists.
Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, were recognized “for the physical modelling of Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome was also awarded “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales,” the academy said.
“Syukuro Manabe demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth,” the academy said. “In the 1960s, 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.”
Manabe said it was a surprise to see the physics prize be awarded to a climate scientist.
“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,” he said in a statement released by Princeton. “This is the first time the Nobel Prize has been awarded for the kind of work I have done: the study of climate change.”
Some of Manabe’s colleagues in the field weren’t as surprised.
“This is a well-deserved recognition of Suki and his pioneering work,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton who has worked with Manabe.
“He developed the first modern version of a climate model,” Oppenheimer said. “Climate models are the only tool available to make detailed projections of future climate change.”
Beyond the science, Oppenheimer called Manabe “a wonderful colleague.”
“The combination of brilliance and humility that characterizes Suki is highly unusual and much welcomed,” he said.
That was on display during a Tuesday news conference at Princeton, which Manabe opened with a joke.
“As I get older, both my Japanese and English are deteriorating steadily,” he said, drawing laughter. “So please forgive my broken English here.”
Manabe said he was surprised by the award because he thought his work couldn’t compare to the “outstanding” research by previous winners. But then he factored in the climate crisis and acknowledged that his work could at least help lead to a better understanding of the problem.
“Then I thought, maybe it’s OK,” he said of his award, once again drawing laughter.
But his main message, and advice to young researchers, was to let curiosity lead the way.
“I think most interesting research is driven from curiosity,” he said.
Manabe, who was born in 1931 in Ehime Prefecture, studied at the University of Tokyo, earning a doctorate in 1958. That year, he moved to the U.S. to work for the National Weather Service, using physics to model weather systems. In 1963, he moved to Princeton to help lead a national climate research laboratory.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Manabe was asked why he became a U.S. citizen and pursued his career outside of Japan.
He said that in Japan, people are often focused on not doing anything that could disturb others, instead prioritizing harmonious relationships. In the U.S., however, he found an open atmosphere.
“I can do whatever I please in my research,” he said. “My boss was generous enough to let me do anything I want.”
He said he felt comfortable doing his research without worrying about what other people thought.
“That is one reason … I don’t want to go back to Japan,” he said. “Because I’m not capable of living harmoniously.”
Regardless of his move to the U.S., Manabe’s win was celebrated in Japan, with the news leading several major daily newspapers.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida praised Manabe’s “innovative ideas.”
His work “contributed greatly to the sustainable development of human society and the international community, and it was valued by the world,” Kishida said. “As a Japanese, I am proud of that.”
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