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Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry awarded to boffins studying complex systems, organic catalysts

20m Swedish kronor – close to 2 million quid – to be shared

The Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry were this week awarded to scientists for groundbreaking research into climate, complex systems, and a new type of catalyst.

Princeton University's Syukuro Manabe, 90; Klaus Hasselman, professor emeritus at the University of Hamburg, 89; and Giorgio Parisi, 73, of the Sapienza University of Rome, will share the prize for physics and a 10m Swedish kronor (£836,000, $1.16m) windfall.

This year's prize is split in two, with Manabe and Hasselman recognized on one side for developing models of Earth’s climate, and Parisi on the other side for his work on complex systems. Manabe and Hasselman were already known for predicting global warming from rising levels of carbon dioxide.

Manabe is a meteorologist and climatologist who pioneered the use of computational simulations to study climate change, while Hasselman is an oceanographer working at the Max Planck Institute, Germany. “When I got the phone call this morning, I was so surprised,” Manabe said on Tuesday.

“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.”

Parisi has had a decorated career in theoretical physics, winning numerous internationally recognized awards in areas spanning quantum field theory to statistical mechanics. He won his part of the Nobel prize “for the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.”

“The discoveries being recognized this year demonstrate that our knowledge about the climate rests on a solid scientific foundation, based on a rigorous analysis of observations,” Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said in a statement. “This year’s laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems.”

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David MacMillan, both 53 and pioneers of organocatalysis in which organic compounds are synthesized to speed up chemical reactions. Scientists earlier thought there were only two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes.

Enzymes regulate chemical processes within our bodies. Artificial catalysts, on the other hand, need to be carefully designed and manufactured in a lab. List and MacMillan showed there was a third type of catalyst: asymmetric organocatalysis. These molecules are made up of a string of carbon atoms, and often contain elements of oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, or sulfur.

Organocatalysts are more environmentally friendly than metal ones; they’re biodegradable and are used to build materials from shampoo to carpet fibers. “I am shocked and stunned and overjoyed,” MacMillan, a Scottish-born researcher and academic at Princeton University, said.

List is a German scientist at the Max Planck Institute. The chemistry prize also comes with a 10m Swedish kronor reward for both men to share. ®

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