7 October 2021
by Andrea Gaini

Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry and Physics announced

Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry , while Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi share the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Benjamin List and David MacMillan are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 for their development of a precise new tool for molecular construction: organocatalysis.

Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases.

List and MacMillan developed a third type of catalysis, called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.

Organic catalysts have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach. These often contain common elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur or phosphorus. This means that these catalysts are both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.

The rapid expansion in the use of organic catalysts is primarily due to their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. When molecules are being built, situations often occur where two different molecules can form, which are each other’s mirror image. Chemists will often only want one of these, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals.

Organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed since 2000. List and MacMillan remain leaders in the field, and have shown that organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions. Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything like molecules that can capture light in solar cells.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics is shared by three Laureates for their studies of chaotic and apparently random phenomena.

Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it. Giorgio Parisi is rewarded for his revolutionary contributions to the theory of disordered materials and random processes.

Their theory recognises new methods for describing them and predicting their long-term behaviour.

One complex system of vital importance to humankind is Earth’s climate. Syukuro Manabe demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth. 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.

About ten years later, Klaus Hasselmann created a model that links together weather and climate, thus answering the question of why climate models can be reliable despite weather being changeable and chaotic. He also developed methods for identifying specific signals, fingerprints, that both natural phenomena and human activities imprint in the climate. His methods have been used to prove that the increased temperature in the atmosphere is due to human emissions of carbon dioxide.

Around 1980, Giorgio Parisi discovered hidden patterns in disordered complex materials. His discoveries are among the most important contributions to the theory of complex systems. They make it possible to understand and describe many different and apparently entirely random materials and phenomena, not only in physics but also in other, very different areas, such as mathematics, biology, neuroscience and machine learning.

‘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. This year’s Laureates have all contributed to us gaining deeper insight into the properties and evolution of complex physical systems,’ says Thors Hans Hansson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics.


Andrea Gaini