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When cows are more than doughless spheres


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Diario de Navarra

Diego Maza Ozcoidi

Director from department of Physics and Applied Mathematics of the School of Sciences of the University of Navarra.

"Suppose a spherical, massless cow". This joke, frequently repeated in the classrooms and corridors of many study centers around the world, focuses on the extreme reductionism of many physical models. Thus, it seeks to jocularly highlight the high Degree of oversimplification with which many mathematical models approach natural reality, in order to make them more understandable and manageable.

This year's Nobel laureates in Physics have shown us that even these "spherical cows" (strictly speaking, I should call them simple models) can produce surprising results, both unexpected and complex.

Syukuro Manabe, one of the fathers of atmospheric dynamics simulation, developed approaches accessible to the computational resources of his time, showing how the motion of the oceans is coupled with atmospheric dynamics and has an unquestionable impact on the way in which certain gases affect the planet's climate. Klaus Hasselmann added an element core topic to these results by showing how ocean dynamics, although apparently very robust, is very sensitive to small perturbations that ultimately trigger large fluctuations, which are (sadly) familiar to us today, such as the storm "Filomena", or the DANA that hit southern Spain a few days ago.

A very different starting point cradles the work of Giorgio Parisi. His contributions on the way in which the rules of interaction between the parts of a system determine its collective properties, transcended B the initial framework for which they were conceived and are currently used to understand, for example, the behavior of the sand that forms the desert dunes.

Although the award is shared, Manabe and Hasselmann on the one hand and Parisi on the other, a delicate and subtle thread threads both contributions together to make them appear as one: the rich variability that arises from proposing apparently simple rules to model the way in which the components of any physical system interact. This variability has profound consequences in everything that surrounds us and understanding both its origin and consequences will still require great efforts and will surely bring us great surprises. It is fair to say, therefore, that the "cows" of the laureates have proved to be much more than spherical and massless, and that the barnyard has much to tell.