Two Nobels in two days for NJ scientists

It was a normal week in the Garden State, and then Tuesday came. One local scientist won a Nobel Prize, and then, on Wednesday, a second NJ scientist won another. (It’s not like they just hand these things out.)

What’s more, both recipients are Princeton University scientists (which, unsurprisingly, has a long list of past Nobel Prize winners): Syukuro “Suki” Manabe and David MacMillan.

Manabe, a senior meteorologist in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in climate modeling.

Syukuro Manabe; credit: Princeton University

“[Manabe] demonstrated how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which handles the honors, noted in announcing the award. “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 shares the award with Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany.

Though the Nobel Prize will certainly expose Manabe’s work to a wider audience, his peers have long noted his outsize impact in studying climate change.

“Without the science of climate modeling that [Manabe] initiated, we might still know that Earth’s greenhouse effect was increasing due to human activity and that Earth was warming,” said Michael Oppenheimer, of the High Meadows Environmental Institute, in a statement. “But linking those two facts would be more difficult, and projection of the future at any useful level of detail would be impossible.”

Isaac Held, a senior meteorologist and Manabe’s colleague in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, adds that Manabe is a humble researcher who has an intuitive understanding of climate modeling.

“He seemed to have a better understanding of how things fit together and what was important and what wasn’t important, and especially for those things that are relevant for climate change and the response to increasing greenhouse gases,” Held says. “He was way ahead of the curve. All of his ideas really—just about all of them—have turned out to be correct and foundational to the subject.”

Princeton professor David MacMillan won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in organocatalysis, or “finding revolutionary ways to design and build small organic molecules in order to drive chemical reactions.”

David MacMillan; credit: Princeton University

MacMillan says he was “shocked and stunned and overjoyed” when he learned the news of his (and German researcher Benjamin List’s) award. 

“What we care about is trying to invent chemistry that has an impact on society and can do some good, and I am thrilled to have a part in that,” MacMillan says. “Organocatalysis was a pretty simple idea that really sparked a lot of different research, and the part we’re just so proud of is that you don’t have to have huge amounts of equipment and huge amounts of money to do fine things in chemistry.” 

Like Manabe, those who work with MacMillan are already aware of his contributions to scientific research. 

“[MacMillan] is the most innovative, progressive and impactful investigator currently working in the area of synthetic organic chemistry,” said Greg Scholes, chair of the Department of Chemistry and William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, in a statement. “Over the past 18 years, he has created two large and active fields of research: asymmetric organocatalysis and photoredox catalysis. His accomplishments over this period of time are unrivaled, and we are beyond thrilled.”

Both were honored with receptions at Princeton this week.