Handling complexity: On 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics

The Physics Nobel winners have developed tools to get a handle on complex systems

What ties together the seemingly disparate works — the climate science work by Syukuro and Hasselmann on the one hand and theoretical condensed matter physics work by Parisi on the other — is that both describe complex physical systems. Physics is often thought of as a science of simple systems, and it is mostly celebrated and sometimes chided for this. Even rocket science, which inspires awe for its grandeur and accuracy, is mostly the study of so-called simple systems. Complexity arises when there are many, many interacting pieces in the system, with each moving in an independent way. The deceptively easy-looking problem of water rushing out of a tap is notoriously difficult to understand as to when it makes a transition from simple streamlined flow to a complex turbulent flow. The Nobel winners this year have handled such complex systems and developed tools to get meaningful, quantitative results out of them. Notable in this is the climate scientists’ work, which makes it obvious where science stands on the issue of global warming and estimates the human fingerprint on climate change. With the COP26 summit drawing close, the Nobel committee’s decision only underscores the need to take this into account.

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