University of Texas
Ilya Prigogine
January 15, 1917–May 28,2003



Ilya Prigogine

Nobel Prize Medal award Ilya Prigogine in Chemistry in 1977

Ilya Prigogine




Ilya Prigogine, Regental Professor of Physics and Chemical Engineering and director of the Ilya Prigogine Center for Studies in Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems at the University of Texas at Austin died on May 28, 2003. He joined the UT faculty in 1967 and remained a very active member of the faculty until his death in 2003. Prigogine was a leader in the fields of nonlinear chemistry and physics, whose research helped create a greater understanding of the role of time in the physical sciences and biology. He contributed significantly to scientists’ ability to analyze dynamical processes in complex systems. He greatly enhanced our understanding of irreversible processes in systems that are far from equilibrium, particularly in chemical and biological systems.

Prigogine developed the concept of “dissipative structures” to describe the coherent space-time structures that form in open systems in which an exchange of matter and energy occurs between a system and its environment. Ilya Prigogine received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for “his contributions to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theories of dissipative structures.” In his speech presenting Prigogine at the Nobel award ceremony, Professor Stig Claesson of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden made the following remarks which well describe the great importance of Prigogine’s work. (Complete remarks available at Claesson, RAS Sweden. ):

“The discoveries for which Ilya Prigogine has been awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry come within the field of thermodynamics, which represents one of the most sophisticated branches of scientific theory and is of enormous practical relevance...

Prigogine's great contribution lies in his successful development of a satisfactory theory of non-linear thermodynamics in states which are far removed from equilibrium. In doing so he has discovered phenomena and structures of completely new and completely unexpected types, with the result that this generalized, nonlinear and irreversible thermodynamics has already been given surprising applications in a wide variety of fields.

Prigogine has been particularly captivated by the problem of explaining how ordered structures—biological systems, for example—can develop from disorder...

Prigogine…chose…to study systems which follow non-linear kinetic laws and which, moreover, are in contact with their surroundings so that energy exchange can take place - open systems, in other words. If these systems are driven far from equilibrium, a completely different situation results. New systems can then be formed which display order in both time and space and which are stable to perturbations. Prigogine has called these systems dissipative systems because they are formed and maintained by the dissipative processes which take place because of the exchange of energy between the system and its environment and because they disappear if that exchange ceases. They may be said to live in symbiosis with their environment.

The method that Prigogine has used to study the stability of the dissipative structures to perturbations is of very great general interest. It makes it possible to study the most varied problems, such as city traffic problems, the stability of insect communities, the development of ordered biological structures and the growth of cancer cells to mention but a few examples...

Prigogine's researches into irreversible thermodynamics have fundamentally transformed and revitalized the science, given it a new relevance and created theories to bridge the gaps between chemical, biological and social scientific fields of inquiry. His works are also distinguished by an elegance and a lucidity which have earned him the epithet "the poet of thermodynamics”.

Click here for Prigogine Nobel Lecture.pdf

Over the course of his scientific career, Prigogine was the recipient of fifty-three honorary degrees, and he authored twenty books and more than 1000 research articles. He was a member of many national academies around the world, including those of the United States, Russia, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, England, Italy, Korea, and Argentina. He also received numerous international awards for his scientific work, including the Gold Medal of the Svante Arrhenius, Swedish Academy, 1969; Rumford Gold Medal, Royal Society of London, 1976; Descartes Medal, Paris, 1979; Commander of the Legion of Honor, France, 1988; Imperial Order of the Rising Sun, Japan, 1991; and the Medal of the President of the Italian Senate, 1997. He received the University Peace and Science Gold Medal, Albert Schweitzer International University, for humanitarianism in science in 2001. Prigogine was awarded the title of Viscount by the King of Belgium in 1989.

Ilya Prigogine was born in Moscow on January 25, 1917, a few months before the Russian revolution. Events in Russia caused his family to leave Russia in 1921. They went first to Germany and then settled in Belgium in 1929. Perhaps because of this history, Prigogine was fluent in the French, English, Russian, and German languages. Under the influence of his mother, Prigogine studied music from an early age and received a rigorous classical education in Belgium. Prigogine studied chemistry at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and obtained his doctorate there in 1941. In 1947, Prigogine was appointed professor at the Université Libre, and in 1962, he was named director of the Solvay, Institut Internationaux de Physique et de Chimie Solvay, a position he held until the end of his life. In 1967, Prigogine joined the physics and chemical engineering faculties at the University of Texas at Austin, as a half-time professor. At that time, he founded the Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics (renamed the Ilya Prigogine Center for Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems in 1977 when he received the Nobel Prize). In 1979, Prigogine was appointed Regental Professor of Physics and Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas as Austin.

As a young man, Prigogine was strongly influenced by the thinking of Henri Bergson, who emphasized the differences between the concept of time used in science and the time of ordinary experience. At the Université Libre, he was strongly influenced by two professors, Jean Timmermans and Théophile de Donder. Timmermans was interested in application of equilibrium thermodynamics to the study of solutions and other complex systems. De Donder was interested in the applications of thermodynamics to nonequilibrium situations. These became two major themes in Prigogine’s research career. Prigogine’s book, Chemical Thermodynamics, co-authored with R. Defay, is one of the most-cited books on this subject. His book, The Molecular Theory of Solutions, co-authored with V. Mathot and A. Bellemans, summarizes many of his important contributions to the theory of solutions. However, Prigogine’s primary interest was in non-equilibrium irreversible phenomena because in these systems the arrow of time becomes manifest.

Prigogine viewed the arrow of time and irreversibility as playing a constructive role in nature. For him the arrow of time was essential to the existence of biological systems, which contain highly organized irreversible structures. Prigogine’s first major work on irreversible systems was his theorem of minimum entropy production which was applicable to nonequilibrium stationary states near equilibrium. This theorem was the focus of his PhD dissertation in 1945 and is the subject of his first book, Étude Thermodynamique des Phénomenes Irreversibles (1947) and the English translation Thermodynamics of Irreversible Processes (1955).

Prigogine next began to work on far-from-equilibrium irreversible phenomena, both in hydrodynamic systems and chemical systems. Such systems, because of nonlinear interactions, can form spatial and temporal structures (dissipative structures) that can exist as long as the system is held far from equilibrium due to a continual flow of energy or matter through the system. Over the years, Prigogine co-authored several classic books on far from equilibrium phenomena including Thermodynamic Theory of Structure, Stability and Fluctuations with P. Glansdorff and Self-organization in Nonequilibrium Systems: From Dissipative Structures to Order through Fluctuations with G. Nicolis.

Irreversible systems have an arrow of time which appears to be incompatible with Newtonian and quantum dynamics, which are reversible theories. This incompatibility of the reversible foundations of science with the irreversible behavior that is actually observed in chemical, hydrodynamic, and biological systems remains one of the great mysteries of science. What is the origin of the arrow of time? Is it a fundamental property of nature, or is it only an illusion? Prigogine’s view was that it must be a fundamental property of nature. In the 1950s, he began to work on the foundations of statistical mechanics and the question of how to reconcile Newtonian mechanics with an irreversible world. One of his early books, Nonequilibrium Statistical Mechanics (1962), remains a classic in this field. The Newtonian foundations of equilibrium statistical mechanics require that the Newtonian dynamics be chaotic. Prigogine’s early work at UT was focused on the problem of dissipative structures, but in later years, he became more and more involved with the problem of reconciling the arrow of time with Newtonian and quantum dynamics. Indeed, much of the research in the Prigogine Center focused on the nonlinear dynamics of conservative chaotic systems and the manifestations of chaos in statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. Many of the questions raised in this area are critical to understanding dynamics at nanometer and atomic-length scales, a topic of considerable current interest. At the end of his life, Prigogine believed that he and his students had discovered how the arrow of time manifests itself in Newtonian dynamics. The key can be found in simple chaotic maps. When analyzed in terms of single trajectories, they appear to be reversible. However, when analyzed in terms of the flow of probabilities in their phase space, they decay to an equilibrium probability distribution. The rate of decay to equilibrium appears in the spectrum of the Frobenius-Perron operator that describes the dynamics of probability distributions in these systems.

While working with non-equilibrium chemical systems, it was a natural step to extend concepts found in these systems to complex social and economic systems. Prigogine is considered one of the founders of complexity science. His book, Kinetic Theory of Vehicular Traffic with R. Herman, is one of the first practical books on complexity science. His book, Exploring Complexity with G. Nicolis, is a classic in the field.

Ilya Prigogine was a great optimist and a gifted teacher. Perhaps his optimism grew out of his science, which was the science of creation. He had the ability to transmit his excitement about ideas to students and give them confidence to carry those ideas in new directions. His lectures were fascinating. He preferred to leave out many of the tedious details in his science lectures and instead included perspectives on art, music, and philosophy, which wove the science into the broader fabric of life. He wrote a number of best selling popular books for general audiences, including Order Out of Chaos (1984) and The End of Certainty – Times Flow and the Laws of Nature (1997) with I. Stengers.

Prigogine was a true Renaissance Man in every sense of the word. In addition to his remarkable scientific achievements, he had a profound knowledge of history, music, philosophy and archaeology. His death closes an important chapter in the history of science. He is greatly missed by his many friends and colleagues.

Ilya Prigogine is survived by his wife, Marina, and his two sons Yves and Pascal.

This memorial resolution was prepared by a special committee consisting of Professors Linda Reichl (chair), Robert Schechter, and George Sudarshan.

From On Campus, October 17-22, 1977
Written by Amy Jo Long and Joyce Poole, photo by Frank Armstrong.
(Transcribed by Lois Mallory.)

Nobel to Prigogine

Distinguished scientist divides time between UT and Brussels

Dr. Ilya Prigogine, winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, divides his time between the University of Texas at Austin and the Free University of Brussels in Belgium. He is director of UT Austin's Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics, which he founded in 1967, and has teaching appointments in physics and chemical engineering.

When the prize was announced Oct 11, he was in Belgium, where he is a professor of physical chemistry and theoretical physics and director of the International Institute of Physics and Chemistry at the Free University of Brussels. In announcing the $145,000 award to Dr. Prigogine, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences cited him "for his contributions to nonequilibrium thermodynamics, particularly, the theory of dissipative structure." The Academy also noted, "The great contribution of Prigogine to thermodynamic theory is his successful extension of it to systems which are far from thermodynamic equilibrium."

'We Can Understand Why We Exist'

One Academy member, Prof. Bo G. Malmstrom, said Professor Prigogine's work contributed to the understanding of how living beings use energy. "With Professor Prigogine's theory we can understand why we exist," Professor Malmstrom said. "Of course, the question of the origin of life cannot be solved. This theory, however, makes us believe that life's origin was not coincidental, and that it may be possible to trace it."

Born Jan. 25, 1917, in Moscow, Dr. Prigogine personifies the international spirit of science and scholarship. His works have been published in English, German, Russian, Japanese, Serbo-Croatian, French, Italian Spanish and other languages.

His many honors include honorary doctorates from the University of Bordeux and the Université de Pointiers in France, the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in England, the University of Chicago in the U.S. and the Université of Liège in Belgium. He is a former president of the Royal Academy of Belgium, foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, foreign associate of the of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S., member of the National Rumanian Academy and the Royal Society of Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden, corresponding member of the Royal Society of Sciences, Liége, honorary member of the Göttingen Academy in West Germany, member of the German Academy of Sciences and the National Austrian Academy.

Prizes, Medals

He is winner of the Francqui Prize, the E. J. Solvay Prize, the Arrhenius Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Burke Medal of the Chemical Society of Great Britain.

President Lorene Rogers of UT Austin sent Dr. Prigogine a telegram Oct. 11, telling him the Main Building Tower would be lighted orange that night in his honor. An orange-lighted Tower usually signifies an athletic victory. "The entire University community is proud of the accomplishments of Dr. Prigogine and are pleased that he has been recognized in this way," Dr. Rogers said.

Dr. Eldon Sutton, UT Austin vice president of research, said the award to Professor Prigogine illustrates the importance of basic research. "Although Professor Prigogine's appointment is in physics and chemical engineering, his findings have application to chemistry, in which he won the prize, as well as biology and indeed to many areas of the social sciences," Dr. Sutton commented. "Professor Prigogine's work is difficult to translate into terms that are very meaningful to many people, but it is the kind of work that will stimulate other investigators to find applications that will help solve very practical problem," he said.

'Tickled to Death'

"We are tickled to death," said UT Austin physics department chairman Dr. Thomas Griffy of Dr. Prigogine's honor. "It is a well-deserved award." Dr. Griffy said that in layman's language, the esoteric-sounding term non-equilibrium thermodynamics means the study of systems which are far from their normal state. "The study has applications in physics, chemistry and biology, and there is some speculation it might be of interest in the study of the growth of cancer cells," Dr. Griffy said. Dr. William Wade, chairman of the UT Austin chemistry department, said: "Over the years I have been pleased seeing Dr. Prigogine maintain his vitality for scholarly endeavors."

'The University Can Be Proud'

"Well-deserved recognition of an outstanding scientist," was Dr. James Brock's reaction to the announcement of Dr. Prigogine's Nobel Prize. "I think the University can be proud to have him as a professor," commented Dr. Brock, UT Austin professor of chemical engineering who first worked with Dr. Prigogine in 1962 in Brussels. The prize was "no surprise" to another colleague at the center, Dr. Lothar Koschmieder, associated professor of meteorology. "What more can you say about a person who is obviously so outstanding as Dr. Prigogine? You are waiting for him to get a prize. Besides all his outstanding scientific qualifications, he is a very nice person," said Dr. Koschmieder, who has worked with Dr. Prigogine for the past five years.

Another associate praised Dr. Prigogine for research that is "far reaching and practical," as well as "for work that the average person can relate to. An understanding of how systems develop structures is something we all should be interested in," said Dr. William Schieve, UT associate professor of physics.Dr. Prigogine is married to the former Marina Prokopowicz and has two children, Yves Prigogine, 32, and Pascal Prigogine, seven.

Background on Prigogine Center

The Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics at the University of Texas at Austin was founded in 1967 when Dr. Ilya Prigogine was appointed professor of physics and chemical engineering, as well as director of the center. The aim was to sponsor research in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, as well as interdisciplinary research, specifically between the departments of physics and chemical engineering.

The center's work belongs to an emergent paradigm of science which emphasizes macroscopic coordination of processes at many levels—not only in the domain of physics but also at those levels of complex interaction that are characteristic of life, ecosystems, and further to sociocultural development in the human sphere. Viewed in that perspective, the developments in science to which the center tries to contribute tend to emphasize the relation between science, culture and nature. "Science in such a new spirit seems to be a prerequisite for avoiding threatening pitfalls in the development of Western society (such as exemplified by Huxley's Brave New World) and for realizing that type of society which Etzioni calls 'the active society'," Professor Prigogine has said. The interest of the center's work in that broad social context is witnessed by the fact that the Club of Rome and the Council of Europe have asked Professor Prigogine to write a report on it and that he as been appointed chairman of a study group, "Science in Society," under the sponsorship of the European Communities.

A Vigorous Research and Graduate Program

Since its founding, the center has maintained a vigorous research and graduate program. It has brought a number of outstanding scientists to Texas as visiting scholars and has supported numerous postdoctoral research scholars with research grants from the National Science Foundation, Welch Foundation, General Motors and the American Gas Association. The number of students working on projects in a wide range of subjects in the center has increased each year.

There has been close collaboration between the Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics in Austin and the group of statistical physicists of the Free University of Brussels directed by Professor Prigogine. Frequent exchanges of visitors have been made possible through grants from the U. S. Air Force and NATO, as well as the support of the L’Institut Internationaux de Physique et de Chimie fondés par E. Solvay.

One area of research has had an enormous influence on the subsequent direction of the center and indeed opened a whole new field of science. That was the discovery in 1967 of dissipative structures by Professor Prigogine and Rene Lefever, followed by the first confirmation of the theoretical predictions via computer simulation at the University of Texas by Lefever (then a postdoctoral studenti n the center) with the help of Prof. Robert S. Schechter of the College of Engineering. That pioneering work has led to applications of the basic ideas in such diverse areas as chemistry, biology, hydrodynamics, ecology and sociology, and to the identification in many of those disciplines of new types of behavior which were first predicted by the theory.

A major function of the center is the training of graduate students in advanced research problems in non-equilibrium statical mechanics. All faculty and staff members orient much of the teaching activity to modern topics in statistical mechanics, and members of both faculty and staff give lectures at conferences and to other departments in the University.

The center serves as a focal point for discussion of new problems and discoveries in non-equilibrium statistical mechanics and has sponsored several international courses in that area. Lectures given at the short courses have been published.

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