Ilya Prigogine: The Poet of Thermodynamics


[Celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ilya Prigogine]

“The attitude of Einstein toward science, for example, was to go beyond the reality of the moment. He wanted to transcend time…for him science was an introduction to a timeless reality beyond the illusion of becoming. My own attitude is very different because, to some extent, I want to feel the evolution of things. I don’t believe in transcending, but in being embedded in a reality that is temporal.”

Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) is best known today for his work in thermodynamics and especially for his focus on the concepts of irreversibility and dissipative structures. He was a champion of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, compelled by a lifelong fascination with biology’s apparent denial of the principals of physics, and his work is often described as having attempted to marry thermodynamics – particularly the concept of entropy – to biological evolution.

At first glance, notions of entropy and biological evolution seem irreconcilable: one states that the universe trends to disorder and the other suggests that organisms continue to become more ordered as they evolve. Partly because of this, Prigogine’s theories were unpopular within the scientific community for a number of years as they ran counter to traditional schools of thought within physics and thermodynamics.

In developing his thinking, Prigogine worked within the framework of Arthur Eddington’s “arrow of time” concept, which describes time’s asymmetrical, one-way direction. Prigogine was specifically interested in exploring its role in irreversible systems.  Although dismayed by his contemporaries’ lack of interest in challenging accepted concepts of time, Prigogine nevertheless persisted in his research and was eventually awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on dissipative structures.

Prigogine’s ideas have since been adapted for many purposes. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for one, has used the work in developing predicative tools for traffic patterns. Biologists have likewise used it to deepen their understanding of the glycolytic cycle.

But perhaps most notably, Prigogine is often cited as offering an alternative to the view that the universe will end in “heat death.” On the contrary, Prigogine believed just the opposite to be true, that our universe will continue to become more and more ordered to the point of becoming self-aware. Although many of his theories eventually gained widespread recognition, his speculations where the universe was concerned remained a matter of debate.


The irreversibility of time is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos.”

Ilya Romanovich Prigogine was born into a Jewish family in Moscow on January 25, 1917, just months before the Russian Revolution. Repulsed by the new communist regime, his family left Moscow in 1921 and travelled Europe for a few years, staying first in Lithuania, then in Berlin. The family eventually settling in Brussels, where Prigogine spent his formative years. His mother, a conservatory student, spent a great deal of time teaching music to Prigogine and his older brother. She noted later that her younger son could read music before words and, as a child, that Ilya proved himself a talented pianist who aspired to become a concert pianist.

As he grew a bit older, Prigogine attended Ixelles Athenaeum, a school known for its rigorous curriculum focusing on the classics. It was likely there that Prigogine developed an appreciation of and interest in classical literature and philosophy. He was particularly taken with the philosophy of Henri Bergson, whom he later credited with shaping the direction of his early research.

After he turned seventeen and entered the Université Libre de Bruxelles, he decided to focus his studies on criminology. In preparation, Prigogine embarked on a mission to uncover the inner workings of a criminal’s mind. This led to a preoccupation with studying the chemical composition of the human brain and his fascination with the subject ultimately compelled him to change his major to chemistry.

In his fourth year at the university, Prigogine began studying under Théophile de Donder. The pair focused their efforts on transforming the “classical” view of thermodynamics that gave privilege to near equilibrium systems. Specifically, they argued that in practical applications, phenomena that are very far from equilibrium and produce minimum entropy are the most common. Such phenomena had been largely excluded from classical thermodynamics on the basis that they were transitory or parasitic.

As his research moved forward, the question of non-equilibrium consumed Prigogine’s interest, because he saw it as vital to explaining a variety of processes in living organisms. By 1945, a mere four years after obtaining his doctorate at the Université Libre, he had formulated a theorem of minimum entropy production to account for non-equilibrium states. At the time, this was not a widely respected theory, and years later Prigogine could still recall the disdain with which some of his colleagues had treated his interest in the subject.

In 1950 Prigogine accepted a position at the Université Libre, where he worked with his colleague Paul Glansdorff on research that eventually arrived at dissipative structures in the late 1960s. In 1967 Prigogine accepted a professorship in physics and chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and from then on he split his time between Texas and Brussels. Shortly after this appointment, he and René Lefever proposed what is now known as the Brusselator, a model of chemical reactions with oscillation.

Named the director of the International Solvay Institutes in Brussels in 1959, Prigogine was still working in this capacity when he sought to organize the 1987 Solvay conference in Austin. In the months leading up to this conference, he contacted Linus Pauling in the hopes that Pauling would approve of his idea to form a joint physics and chemistry meeting on the subject of surface phenomena. Pauling responded enthusiastically and told Prigogine of his own recent work with icosahedral and decagonal quasicrystals. Prigogine extended an invitation to Pauling to attend the conference, but Pauling was unable to attend due to commitments in Washington D.C. that ran concurrent with the conference. Beyond this, Pauling and Prigogine maintained little in the way of a correspondence.


From the 1987 Solvay Conference in Austin, Texas. Prigogine is pictured in the bottom right. Pauling was unable to attend this conference.

Science for the benefit of humanity is only possible if the scientific attitude is deeply rooted in the culture as a whole. This implies certainly a better dissemination of scientific information on the side of the public, but also on the other a better understanding of the problems of our time by the scientific community.

After spending decades receiving little to no recognition for his work, Prigogine was informed that he would receive the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry. In a speech of introduction at the Nobel ceremonies, Prigogine was praised not only for his research and its significant impact, but also for the eloquence that had inspired his nickname, “the poet of thermodynamics.”

In his own banquet speech, Prigogine refrained from delving too deeply into his research and instead emphasized the need for cooperation between the scientific community and the surrounding culture. In interviews conducted after he received the Nobel Prize, Prigogine expressed his long-running dissatisfaction with the classical scientific treatment of time, and cited this as the spark that had driven his interests in subjects like thermodynamics, irreversibility, entropy, and dissipative structures.

Prigogine was also a proponent of the principle of “self-organization” or the process through which order arises between local components of a disordered system. Prigogine called this phenomenon “order through fluctuations,” sometimes translated as “order out of chaos” because of its association with entropy production. He proposed that these fluctuations eventually led to a state of irreversibility that could go in two directions: evolution or disorder. For Prigogine, the nature of these fluctuations served as the link between biological evolution and thermodynamics that he had sought to uncover for his entire career.


The future is uncertain…but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.

By the time of his death in May 2003, Ilya Prigogine had written or co-authored eight books. In addition to his Nobel Prize, he received fifty-three honorary doctorates and won a bevy of awards including The Descartes Medal, the Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, and the Swedish Academy’s Rumford Gold Medal. He belonged to sixty-four national and professional organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1989, the king of Belgium bestowed upon Prigogine the title of Viscount, an especially significant honor for someone who had not been born in Belgium.

In 2003, shortly before his death, Prigogine signed the third Humanist Manifesto, pledging, along with twenty-two other Nobel Laureates, to “lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” In this, as in his undaunted and hugely creative pursuit of scientific truth, Prigogine was among Linus Pauling’s scientific brethren.


One Response

  1. […] a new post on the Pauling blog celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ilya […]

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