Ilya Prigogine Biography

Belgian Theoretical Chemist, Famous for Irreversible Thermodynamics

Brief biography of Ilya Prigogine, 1977 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, best known for development of irreversible processes in thermodynamics, with “arrow of time.”

Russian-born chemist Ilya Prigogine moved to Belgium at the age of 12. He was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development irreversible processes in thermodynamics. He wrote important books including Non-Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics and Order out of Chaos.

Place an ice cube on a table. It melts and forms a pool that drips onto the floor, a usual accepted happening. The surprise is when the reverse happens – the pool on the floor rose to the table and formed a frozen cube. According to Prigogine, time moves in one direction, as if it is an arrow that points from the past to the future.

His concept broke the standard understanding of thermodynamics. He maintains that the arrow of time is driven by the increase of entropy.

Prigogine’s Irreversible Arrow of Time

When in 1946, Russian-born Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003) challenged physics by suggesting that its obsession with equilibrium was the cause of a critical misunderstanding, he was practically condemned by the establishment and criticized that irreversible causes are just illusory, that time is merely a parameter.

But Prigogine argued that time was not just a parameter in an equation that could be played forward or backward, and he further claimed that time was irreversible and had consequences.

According to classical physics, the chance of order arising from disorder is infinitesimally small. The standard argument is that it goes against the well-established laws of thermodynamics. Applying thermodynamics to the universe suggests that the probability that an explosive rush of energy, like the Big Bang, could generate an ordered system of galaxies, stars, planets, and at least on Earth, is so small that it could not occur.

Prigogine provided a solution to the problem, saying that the clue lies in the fact that the universe is a “far from being an equilibrium system.”

Prigogine’s Work Rationale

His work indicates that there are two types of processes as illustrated with system cases:

  • In Planetary motion which are time-reversible, they obey the laws of Newton in which equations can be run forward and backward to show where planets were before and will be in future.
  • In heat conduction or chemical reactions, they do not show symmetry and they are non-equilibrium systems.

When Prigogine introduced the arrow of time, in which according to him, time moves in one direction like an arrow, his concept broke the standard understanding of thermodynamics. He maintained that the arrow is driven by the increase of entropy, a measure of the number of random ways in which in thermodynamics, a system may be arranged. An example of an increasing entropy is ice melting.

Prigogine Final Years

Prigogine developed what he called microscopic laws that include the arrow of time. He showed that the irreversible processes play fundamental roles in the universe which can generate coherent behaviour and structure.

His idea was to extend the fundamental laws of physics to include time’s arrow. Prigogine’s methods are applicable to wide range of both chemical and biological systems. He was an acquaintance of Jean Timmermans and Alan Turing.

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