Russian-born Belgian chemist who, as a highly original theoretician, has made major contributions to the field of thermodynamics. Earlier theories had considered systems at or about equilibrium; Prigogine began to study ‘dissipative’ or nonequilibrium structures frequently found in biological and chemical reactions. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1977 for his work in the thermodynamics of irreversible and dissipative processes. He became Viscount in 1989.
Prigogine was born in Moscow. He studied at Brussels and became professor there in 1951, and in 1959 director of the Instituts Internationaux de Physique et de Chemie. He was professor at the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago 1961–66, and from 1967 director of the Center for Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics at the University of Texas in Austin, concurrently with his professorship in Brussels.
When Prigogine began studying dissipative systems in the 1940s, it was not understood how a more orderly system, such as a living creature, could arise spontaneously and maintain itself despite the universal tendency towards disorder. It is now known that order can be created and preserved by processes that flow ‘uphill’ in the thermodynamic sense, compensated by ‘downhill’ events. Dissipative systems can exist only in harmony with their surroundings. Close to equilibrium, their order tends to be destroyed.
These ideas have been applied to examine how life originated on Earth, to ecosystems, to the preservation of world resources, and even to the prevention of traffic jams.
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