Ilya Prigogine, Chaos, and Dissipative Structures

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Ilya Prigogine was 'Regental Professor of Physics and Chemical Engineering and director of the Ilya Prigogine Center for Studies in Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems at The University of Texas at Austin … . He joined the UT faculty in 1967 and remained a very active member of the faculty until his death in 2003. Prigogine was a leader in the fields of nonlinear chemistry and physics, whose research helped create a greater understanding of the role of time in the physical sciences and biology. He contributed significantly to scientists’ ability to analyze dynamical processes in complex systems.  He greatly enhanced our understanding of irreversible processes in systems that are far from equilibrium, particularly in chemical and biological systems.

Prigogine developed the concept of “dissipative structures” to describe the coherent space-time structures that form in open systems in which an exchange of matter and energy occurs between a system and its environment. Ilya Prigogine received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for “his contributions to nonequilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theories of dissipative structures.” …

Prigogine’s primary interest was in nonequilibrium irreversible phenomena because in these systems the arrow of time becomes manifest.

Prigogine viewed the arrow of time and irreversibility as playing a constructive role in nature. For him the arrow of time was essential to the existence of biological systems, which contain highly organized irreversible structures. Prigogine’s first major work on irreversible systems was his theorem of minimum entropy production which was applicable to nonequilibrium stationary states near equilibrium. ...
Prigogine next began to work on far-from-equilibrium irreversible phenomena, both in hydrodynamic systems and chemical systems. Such systems, because of nonlinear interactions, can form spatial and temporal structures (dissipative structures) that can exist as long as the system is held far from equilibrium due to a continual flow of energy or matter through the system. …

Irreversible systems have an arrow of time which appears to be incompatible with Newtonian and quantum dynamics, which are reversible theories. This incompatibility of the reversible foundations of science with the irreversible behavior that is actually observed in chemical, hydrodynamic, and biological systems remains one of the great mysteries of science. What is the origin of the arrow of time? Is it a fundamental property of nature, or is it only an illusion? Prigogine’s view was that it must be a fundamental property of nature. In the 1950s, he began to work on the foundations of statistical mechanics and the question of how to reconcile Newtonian mechanics with an irreversible world. …

The Newtonian foundations of equilibrium statistical mechanics require that the Newtonian dynamics be chaotic. Prigogine’s early work at UT was focused on the problem of dissipative structures, but in later years he became more and more involved with the problem of reconciling the arrow of time with Newtonian and quantum dynamics. …

While working with non-equilibrium chemical systems, it was a natural step to extend concepts found in these systems to complex social and economic systems. Prigogine is considered one of the founders of complexity science.'1

1 Edited excerpt from In Memoriam: Ilya Prigogine, The University of Texas at Austin

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