Ilya Prigogine (1917 – 2003)

An appreciation by Graham Dawes

It may seem a little strange to mark the passing of a man who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in a newsletter about learning and organizations. However, the organizations in which we live and learn are influenced by the heady mix of ideas that stir, bubble and boil within the cultural nexus, and that cognitive cultural stew is seasoned with the ingredients of current scientific thinking.

Indeed, ideas are drawn from the scientific thinking of the day and used as the metaphors through which we view not only the world around us but also ourselves. For that reason, the work of Ilya Prigogine reached further into the world than the restricted reach of the lecture halls and laboratories of chemistry departments. While ideas of his may have direct and formal relevance to our lives I would argue that their largest influence, at least currently, is due to their metaphoric entailments.

His 1977 Nobel Prize was for work on non-equilibrium thermodynamics but before we come to pulling the metaphors out of that mouthful it is worth noting that he is one of those major scientific figures whose contribution appears to have arisen from cross-specialism interests. In his youth, Prigogine was a notable pianist (winning prizes), immersing himself in the classics, archeology, literature and philosophy. No science subjects! His family steered him toward a career in law and Prigogine resolved that if he were to follow such a profession he ought to have a thorough understanding of criminal psychology. Searching for a book on this subject he happened upon one on the chemical composition of the brain and was quickly swept up in the attractions of chemistry.

His progress in chemistry, though, was influenced by his earlier interest in the humanities, especially as regards the nature of time. In physics, time was going in the direction of entropy, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, toward the dramatically named ‘heat death’. This sounds like some science fiction idea of humanity being fried but it was really about the death of heat. The very concept of ‘heat’ only comes into play if there are variations, fluctuations in the degree of heat. It is through those fluctuations that processes take place, things move, and energy has its way with the world. The idea of the Second Law is that every time some action, some sort of process, takes place there is a loss of heat and that this loss, over vastnesses of time, leads to so much having leaked away that there is too little differentiation in heat to cause anything at all to move. Everything runs down. Thermodynamic equilibrium. We are trapped in an eternal entropy in which nothing happens. Finis.

Of course, the physicists tried to be reassuring by pointing out that this would not be happening for some little while. But I imagine you can sense the metaphoric impact that this recondite law, tucked away in the remote discipline of physics, could have on the cultural mindscape. Its impact was all the more prevalent in that physics was, until fairly recently, the primary scientific discipline from which metaphoric source material was drawn for understanding our world. (‘The Tao of Physics’ was probably the high-point of its metaphoric hegemony.)

Prigogine saw a different story in science, one which seemed to conflict with the Second Law, and this was Darwinian evolution. Evolution told of an increasing complexity to order and structure. Life did not seem to be falling apart into simpler and simpler elements; the simple elements were coming together to create ever more complex elements, ever more complex structures. It was not that Prigogine was the first to notice this apparent conflict in basic understanding but he was pushing the question further than others, and was not put off by the various fudges through which others sought to secure themselves from unsettling considerations.

Prigogine proposed that the reactions of non-living chemicals could share the evolutionary quality of living things. Nobody listened. Then he managed to develop equations to portray the kinds of chemical reaction he was talking about. Now he was speaking mathematics, the language of science, and that is a language scientists find difficult to ignore.

Contrary to conventional opinion, Prigogine claimed that thermodynamic equilibrium was less common that supposed. There is a very great deal of life about, for one thing. And life is a high-energy state not a low-energy state. Life is organized, too. Our cells do not operate randomly; they are highly organized and complex systems.

There is a lot going on in a cell. It might be made up out of a mass of simple components but these components work together as a dynamic system. The name he gave to such systems, those which maintained their own structure whilst exchanging energy with their surroundings, was ‘dissipative structures’. This term can be applied to ‘entities’ as diverse as cells and cities, whirlpools and galaxies, and Prigogine’s equations are even employed in attempts to understand traffic congestion. Who knows, they might someday be formally applied to organizations.

More importantly for us today, the tenor of his work suggests an outlook with a good deal more optimism than entropy could offer. Evolution, of a sort, has been shown to arise in the world of dead matter. It is not something imported into a dead world by life alone. Therefore, life might be said to have its roots deep in matter and that, therefore, an affinity exists between matter and life. This is a comforting thought. As the metaphor plays out its entailments into the interstices of cultural life it will no doubt add its little portion to the feeling that we are at home in the world.

Graham Dawes