- exclusive interview with Ilya Prigogine -

The symmetry of time has been a fundamental concept of mathematics and phycics for ages and our scientific understanding of the world is largely built on time-symmetric formulas and laws. The Belgian nobellaureaat Ilya Prigogine has stated for some years now that theoretical physics should not neglect the direction of time on the quantum-level. An interview with the eighty-four year old physicist and chemist. 

I meet him at his apartment in De Panne on the Belgium
Coast. A sober furnitured flat, clear and clean as the daylight that fills the room. That afternoon a bomb from the Second World War has been detonated on a nearby beach. When I ask him about his recollection of the war, he shruggs his shoulders, the war is a far memory, and hasn’t made an exceptional impression upon him. Most of his youth he fled with his parents, from Russia, through Lithuania to Berlin. And some years later to Belgium, just before the outbreak of the war. The climate in Belgium towards jews appeared to be reasonably tolerant. Prigogine stayed for the rest of his life.

In wartime he chose the study of science instead of music as his path of life. He had been a talented pianist who just happened to be highly interested in chemistry as well.His whole scientific life Prigogine has spent on questions about time, determinism and evolution. In 1977 he was granted the Nobelprize on Chemistry for his research on self-organizing chemical systems. In his latest book, The End of Certainty, Prigogine describes the sub-atomic particles as ensembles, non-isolated systems which are reigned by the laws of probability and statistics and evolve in time. In the Netherlands, like in the US and England  there has always been strong opposition against his ideas. Even today a science-editor of  a Dutch quality newspaper, called him a charlatan. Once again Prigogine shruggs his shoulders: “I know that if the Nobelprize had been dutch, I never had the honor of winning it. But I’m very much honored in other countries, like Italy and Japan and at the University of Austin in Texas. I’m surrounded with excellent scientists and co-workers. As a scientist I can’t complain.”  

He takes a sip of his mineral water and continues without asking: "Many people think that man is about to discover the last secrets of the universe and that we almost have a clear and finished picture of the world. But I don't understand how they can believe this, what is life then, and death? What do we know about the direction of time, which is a feature of all natural processes, including our daily lives?

The majority of the phycisists today for instance agree that there must have been a Big Bang and they say there is an evolution of the universe. But that implies a direction of time. Yet nobody knows how that comes about. My theoretical opponents have always said that the direction of time or irreversibility is caused by the experimentator or the experiment, or because one has to make use of finite numbers in the calculations. But if you say that, our lives are illusions!” 

Perhaps time is not an illusion, but Einstein surely said that time was relative?

"Einstein has proven that time and space are interrelated. And of these two time was relative. Therefore the spatial component has been given more scientific relevance and research than the temporal element. Physics decribes the movement of matter in space, using time only as a parameter. I think this model must change and that we must look for a way to incorporate time in the picture; after all we live in space-time." 

Still, quantummechanics, based on time-symmetric mathematics, is a very succesfull theory. How do you explain that?

“I don’t fight against the exactness and trueness of quantummechanical experiments. Quantummechanics is fine, as long as we don’t forget that it describes only very rare situations of isolated systems. In real life all systems are non-isolated, and have constant interactions with their environment. This is the reason why there aren’t any descriptions  of phase-transitions of matter on quantumlevel.

If we really want to say anything about non-isolated systems, we have to accept that Mother Nature works with statistics and probability. If we don’t accept this, we can never discuss phase-transitions in science, cause these are non-isolated ensembles.” 

Where starts time in physics?

"The role of time is essential for the formation of matter, molecules and the processes of life. The very existence of matter, structures and processes starts with the formation of a feedback-loop. It’s the building principle of nature. The principle allows the forming of new and more complicated structures. All structures, processes and systems repeat certain cycles and exchange information, internally and externally. By doing so a system absorbs energy from its environment and is able to keep its structure in tact, in time. The structure however, is one side of a coin. The other side is that the system starts to produce disorder, warmth and waste; the so-called entropy will increase. The production of waste is an irreversible proces and introduces the arrow of time. Some people put it this way: there are no free lunches in nature." 

Does life necessarily develope from simple forms towards more complicated structures? Is the evolution one-directional and linear?

"There is strong evidence that the biological evolution in some cases shows a tendency towards the development of more complex systems. But we must be very carefull. There are life forms of great complexity, like plants, animals and man, but still the biggest part of the bio-mass of our planet is formed by bacteria. Like Stephen J. Gould has said, I think the evolution not necessarily moves toward more complexity. The evolution evolves in many directions and dimensions at the same time. Some animals left the sea and started to live on land, some went back into the water." 

The mathematics you use are non-linear, and widely known as chaos-theory. Some people say that chaos-theory and complexity research, despite their popularity have failed to fulfil their promises. Do you agree?

"The research of non-linear systems certainly has astonished everybody. Some systems which we reckonned as relatively simple are explosively complex, like the three-body problem. Others look complicated but are relatively easy to describe with non-linear mathematics. Like some economic phenomena. But on the whole non-lineairity poses many questions and no answers. I think we are in need of more sophisticated mathematical tools, because our world is much more complicated than we ever dreamed of." 

Is time linear or circular?

“One cannot say that time is one of these two. Time is multi-dimensional. Nobody grows old in the same way, for instance. Two, three or four dimensions are too simple. Maybe time is ten-dimensional or more! I’m only saying that time is a conditio sine qua non physics can exist, even on the quantum level. Without time there is no creation, no development.” 

Some of your critics say you make up your own rules, you manipulate physics.

“In our latest research my co-workers and I have tried to give quantummechanics a broader mathematical outlook. We tried to create a model for describing more-particle systems; our so-called ensembles. This is a whole new area in maths so we had to develop new mathematical tools. I don’t think people can blame us for that. We are only saying that irreversibility starts at the quantum level and that the direction of time must be significant on that level. We have to accept that time certainly is no illusion on the quantum-level.” 

Do you believe in a so-called new science?

“Science is an expression of culture. The sciences today are totally different than at the beginning of the 20th century. The same is true for our society. I think science and culture are strongly interrelated. Some cultures, like the Chinese, would never have asked the questions leading towards the discovery of  the Americas or the discovery of atoms and quarks. However, cultural creativity and science are not the same thing. Quarks and other subatomic particles did exist before we discovered them, they are no human inventions. In this sense I don’t believe in a new science. But I think we can offer a new perspective which can give us a new look upon reality.

“Nowadays we hardly realize how much our scientific thinking is influenced by cultural values. Take for instance the growing influence of sponsors on all sorts of scientific research in the west. The philosophy behind it is that one can manipulate nature and one can predict a profittable outcome of  research. This way of  reasoning is typical for the dominant mechanistic worldview in the west. The Japanese are different. They are more open for unexpected insights. Even Netwon believed that God was still creating the universe.” 

Do you believe in God?

“I think that one must answer that question for oneself. But who ever takes a masterplan for granted, he or she must accept the existence of some kind of creator or God. I think it’s also possible that the universe is organizing itself, based upon some guiding principles. So is God within or outside creation? I don’t know.” 

But how then, do you explain the existence of patterns like atoms, bacteria, plants or other forms of life?

“We now enter an area of speculation. I think that energy potentialities and entropy are important building principles, which can lead to the existance of quantumstructures and chemical processes which sustain life. But the precize mechanisms are still undiscovered. We can only guess. I think that will be the work for next generations. For the moment I think we should be humble, we are only at the beginning of an understanding of time.” 



Short biography

Ilya Prigogine was born in Russia in 1917. When he was four years old he fled with his parents for the onset of the Russion Revolution, through Lithuania to Berlin. His family stayed there till 1929, when they moved to Brussels. Here Prigogine starts to study chemistry and physics  as a student of professor Théophile de Donder, one of the pioneers of  non-equilibrium dymanics. In 1941 he graduates and in 1951 he succeeds De Donder as professor at the Free University of Brussels.

From that moment on Prigogine’s fame grows rapidly and he acquires some professorates at different universities in Belgium and abroad.

In 1977 he is honored with the Nobelprize for Chemistry, for his research on self-organizing chemical systems. Prigogine showed that these dissipative structures also exist in evolution, embryology, sociology, city-planning and trafficsystems.

In 1989 The Belgium King gives him a royal tittle for his work. Prigogine wrote many articles and books and he is widely known as co-author of Order out of Chaos, which he wrote together with Isabelle Stengers. His latest book, The End of Certainty, appeared in 1997. Prigogine still travels between his Belgium International Solvay Institute of  Physics and Chemistry and the University of Texas, Austin.

Ilya Prigogine died 28 May 2003, at the age of 86.


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