Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Tuesday, October 5, 2021

My Manabe begonia

Jennifer Kay's personal tribute to physicist Suki Manabe

a red and green and spotted begonia winds its way across a window
A begonia grown from clipping after clipping, passed down through scientific greats
- Jennifer Kay/CIRES

Today, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Dr. Syukuro “Suki” Manabe.  I cannot think of a more deserving physicist. I am not alone. The science he and colleagues accomplished at the beginning of the climate and computer revolution is the foundation of climate science. On a more personal note, Suki Manabe is my idol. I’m a scientist who uses climate model experiments and observations to research climate. I mentor early-career scientists and teach classes on the climate system, computational methods, and clouds. Despite the fact that I have never met him, Dr. Manabe influences me daily through his scientific papers and a plant, my “Manabe Begonia.”

About the Manabe papers... if you haven’t read them, you should! I first read them at the recommendation of NCAR’s Dr. Marika Holland (another inspiring climate modeler and scientist!) Ever since, I find myself incredibly humbled and asking: What have we learned since Manabe wrote on this topic in the late 1970s/early 1980s? Just last week, I was discussing a Manabe paper with a student. This paper (among many things) explains why the Arctic warms more than the rest of the planet when greenhouse gases increase. The physics of this paper, from 1980, is spot on. Every time I read Manabe papers and think about how this work was done with the computers of 50 years ago, I am more impressed and inspired. 

So if I have never met Suki Manabe, where did I get my Manabe Begonia?  When I got tenure at the University of Colorado Boulder, Marika gave it to me. At the time, it was a single leaf cutting in a small pot. My friend and mentor relayed that this small plant had an impressive history. At Princeton, Einstein had a begonia. Einstein gifted a cutting to Manabe. A cutting was then passed to Marika’s dad (an oceanographer), to her, and then to me. Marika called it an “Einstein Begonia”… but I renamed it. You see, Manabe is much more my idol than Einstein. The plant continues to grow and blossom. The plant amazes me. During the pandemic lockdown, this plant especially inspired me to do my own science writing. The plant symbolizes what matters most to me—scientists like Manabe who change the world and inspire generations to come.

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