The Institute of Physics has awarded Tim Palmer of the University of Oxford its 2014 Dirac Gold Medal for theoretical physics, “for the development of probabilistic weather and climate prediction systems.”
Most LOTRW readers won’t be familiar with the Dirac Gold Medal. Here’s the background:
[IOP] Council, recognising that the Institute did not have an open award specifically for theoretical physics, decided in 1985 to introduce a new medal and prize to be named after P A M Dirac an Honorary Fellow, who had died the previous year. The first award was made in 1987. In 1992 Council decided that the Dirac medal and prize should become one of its Premier Awards and then from 2008 that it should be one of its Gold medals.
Terms The award shall be made annually for outstanding contributions to theoretical (including mathematical and computational) physics. The medal shall be silver gilt and shall be accompanied by a prize of £1000 and a certificate.
The fuller IOP citation for Professor Palmer’s award is crisp, and would lose some of its punch if shortened further; it’s therefore reprinted here in its entirety:
During the last three decades, Palmer has led in a revolution in the fields of weather and climate by establishing a physical basis for understanding nonlinear error growth in prediction models and for developing practical ways of estimating flow-dependent predictability. He has challenged old ideas and has changed the way that weather and climate are viewed both by the public, by associates in the same field, and by scientists in other disciplines.
Palmer’s work in weather and climate predictions is a beautiful blend of theoretical insight and practicality. Based on his insights into chaotic behaviour of fluids, he has created a system that gives the wealthy and the poorest of the poor throughout the world a determination of the probability of drought, flood, tropical cyclones or hydro-meteorological hazards in general. This probability has allowed them to determine their levels of risk and, if worthwhile, allows them to instigate mitigation. For example, Palmer’s probabilistic predictions have been used in Bangladesh where, for the first time, societies can anticipate slow-rise, long-lived floods. The savings for the mitigating actions in Bangladesh are of the order of annual incomes.
Normally, the societal benefits of ideas take a long time to permeate to the practical level. But Palmer, having practical applications in mind, has formed an almost immediate link between his theoretical insights and practical applications.
Very nice, on every level.
A closing note. For the most part, meteorology and related AMS disciplines are accurately described as applied sciences. We take results of mathematics, or the laws of physics, or chemistry, etc., as given. We apply what is known to our field. It’s only a tiny minority of our community, a few extraordinary individuals, who can tinker productively with the basic premises and fundamental physical understanding that underpins our work. As the IOP Dirac Gold Medal award attests, Professor Palmer fits comfortably into that elite group.
 Professor Palmer is an AMS Fellow and winner of the Charney (1997) and Rossby (2010) Medals.