Ilya Prigogine


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(1917–2003) Belgian chemist

Prigogine was born in Moscow and educated at the Free University of Belgium where he served as professor of chemistry from 1947 to 1987. He was appointed director of the Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics Center of the University of Texas, Austin in 1967.

In 1955 Prigogine produced a seminal and revolutionary work, Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes. In this book he pointed out a serious limitation in classical thermodynamics of being restricted to reversible processes and equilibrium states. He argued that a true thermodynamic equilibrium is rarely attained; a more common state is met with in the cell, which continuously exchanges with its surroundings, or in the solar system with the steady flow of energy from the Sun preventing the atmosphere of the Earth from reaching thermodynamic equilibrium.

A beginning had been made by Lars Onsager to cover nonequilibrium states but this applied only to states not too far away from equilibrium. Prigogine, in a quite radical way, developed machinery to deal with states far from equilibrium. These he called ‘dissipative structures’. He went on to suggest that, “On a broader scale, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that such instabilities related to dissipative processes should play an extensive role in biological processes.” Such a possibility Prigogine began to explore in his Membranes, Dissipative Structures and Evolution (1975).

Prigogine was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work on “nonequilibrium thermodynamics particularly his theory of dissipative structures.”

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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