Some Words About Prigogine

Amara Graps (
Sat, 11 Jan 1997 19:40:49 -0800

I wrote the following summary about Prigogine's book: _From Being to
Becoming_ four years ago for the Extropy email list. When a chemistry
friend told me today that she was reading one of Prigogine's other
books, I dug out this text from my old archives for her. I'm posting it
here (again) in case anyone has an interest in Prigogine's work.

I have had an interest in Prigogine's work for seven or eight years. In
the Fall of 1992, the Bay Area Reading and Discussion Group discussed
_From Being to Becoming_. I wrote this book overview and summary of that
meeting afterwards for the Extropy email list. It is *by no means*
complete, these are only the parts that were interesting to me, and that
I remembered the most.

This particular meeting of the Bay Area Reading and Discussion Group
(BARDG) 13 November 1992 was an extraodinary one because I asked my
former thesis advisor, Alex Garcia, to talk with us. Alex worked with
Prigogine as a graduate student, so he had some interesting perspectives
on Prigogine and Prigogine's work.

OK, so my four-yr-old text follows. Most of it is still relevant, I


My summary (and criticism) of the book.

The theme of the book is that irreversibility is a fundamental property
of physics. Prigogine proposes that entropy is an operator (operators
map functions onto functions), and time is an operator. And that the
time that we are all familiar with from classical mechanics is just an
ensemble average of this operator with a state vector.


Alex Garcia provided some great historical background to Prigogine and
his group. Garcia worked in Prigogine's group in Brussels, Belgium for
two years (Garcia's specialty is fluid dynamics and statistical
mechanics), and then for another year at the University of Texas in
Austin. (Prigogine works for 2 months out of every year at UT.) This
group is an eclectic group. Their interests are far more diverse than
those in the Santa Fe Institue. Prigogine's work focuses on nonlinear
dynamics but they study: ants, chemical reactions, economics,
statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum dynamics and the list
goes on.

Prigogine is primarily a chemist. He was well established in his field 20
years ago, so what he's done since then, is branch out in related areas.
As I understand it, his main discovery has been the existence of
"chemical clocks." These are chemical reactions that oscillate in a very
regular and precise way. Prigogine predicted that they should exist
from a theoretical chemistry standpoint several decades ago. In
the late 1950's, one of his research group came back from a visit with a
colleague in Russia, announcing that they had a chemical reaction that
did just what Prigogine predicted. The reaction is now known as the
Belousov-Zhabotininskii reaction and it is the oxidation of citric acid
by potassium bromate catalyzed by the ceric-cerous ion couple. This
researcher had the recipe for mixing it up in the lab, Prigogine's
group re-created it, and Prigogine bought two cases of champagne for his
group to celebrate.

Some other stories and comments from Garcia.

He said that if Prigogine's current theories are to be borne out, they
will probably occur in the quantum mechanical realm. We wouldn't see
them on a macroscopic scale.

He answered a question one of us had on why Prigogine wasn't very well
known (at least outside of his immediate field). The answer is that
Prigogine is very bad about acknowledging work from others outside his
research group. So others outside his research group don't acknowledge
him very much!

In far-from-equilibrium (FFE) statistical mechanics/thermodynamics,
there is not a pressing need for new all-encompassing equations, even
though the conditions there are so different from equilibrium
situations. Apparently researchers for years have been quite successful
at applying the equilibrium equations (known as local thermodynamic
equilibrium or LTE) *locally* to FFE regions and *bootstrapping* the
results together.


Prigogine's _From Being to Becoming_ is not particularly well-written, in
that it doesn't flow well- the reader is taken on numerous side journeys
that make it hard to tell what the real focus of the book is.

In addition, the equations were a distraction. They provided proof to
what was said in the text, (There were exceptions, however.) but they
were not necessary to understanding the points he made. However, if you
are a scientist, and would like to work with these ideas some more, it's
good to have the equations and the theoretical foundations presented. A
couple of us brought Prigogine's _Order Out of Chaos_ and we learned
that there is an almost one-to-one mapping between _From Being to
Becoming_ and _Order Out of Chaos_. Apparently Prigogine took the
equations out, kept most of the diagrams, and expanded on the concepts.
Even though I'm only part way through that second book, I recommend
_Order Out of Chaos_ far more than _From Being to Becoming_.


The Prigogine talks about entropy alot, but nowhere does he clear give a
physical description of entropy.

Some interesting discussions/points we had.

One of Prigigine's main foci is that nonlinear interactions frequently
lead to order (which he calls "dissipative structures") through
fluctuations. (Hayek has written alot about this from the economics
side.) A dissipative structure is order visible on a macroscale which
can exchange energy with the outside world.

One result from an evolutionary standpoint:

One of us talked about the profound effect that Prigogine's theories had
on his world-view. This new world-view was that complex forms, such as
ourselves, can arise in *local* fluctuations. So then each of us are
*special*. It helped him view his life as much more *meaningful* than
how he had considered it before. (This world-view is a bit different
from the standard deterministic view of our evolution, which is that
we are all swept up and evolving together, and are the end results of
regular process of life. I'm not saying that deterministic evolution is
wrong, but only that you can look at it from a different perspective.)
So then we got off on a tangent on how this might be a good idea to
spread- it may help people view their own lives as a similar *special*
occurrences, which, in turn, would help them be more aware,
responsible, want to live fuller lives, etc.

One result from a nanotechnology standpoint:

We talked about Prigogine's claim that fluctuations near the critical
point have large amplitudes and extend over large distances. This, in
turn, implies that perhaps there is hope for the nanotech community who
wish to simulate a large number of nonlinear processes into a coherent
whole ("us"). Then we got off on another tangent of uploading
difficulties having to do with the different timescales of the different

We also talked some about entropy, but that has already been well
covered on this list.

Amara Graps

NASA-Ames Research Center
MS 245-5
Moffett Field, CA 94035


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