The Prigogine legacy
Ilya Prigogine, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1977, died in Brussels last May. He was a lifelong promoter of European science and, to his mind, Europe always included his native Russia. In 1992, he was appointed head of a vast transnational co-operation programme for scientists. Its work in analysing complex systems continues today and has given rise to 15 projects involving researchers from Moscow, St Petersburg and Dubna.
Ilya Prigogine left Moscow when he was just a young child. He was born there in 1917, the year of the revolution, and immigrated, with his family, to Western Europe in 1921, finally settling in Belgium eight years later. Yet he never forgot Russia – and Russia never forgot him. Elected to the Academy of Sciences and invited many times to give conferences in the USSR, Prigogine developed close contacts with many Soviet scientists. It was, therefore, only natural for the European Commission to turn to him when, in 1992, the Union decided to extend a hand to this far eastern wing of the “European House”. 'The situation there was terrible,' remembers Iouri Melnikov, a project manager on one such joint endeavour. 'Scientists no longer had any support or prospects. Prigogine wanted to help research in Russia, rather than encourage Russians to leave the country. That is why he became actively involved in setting up solid networks to enable them to co-operate with the European Union.'
|Mikhaïl Gorbachev during a private discussion with Ilya Prigogine in 1991.|
Order behind the chaos
On the European Commission side, the idea for co-operation with the scientists of the former USSR – with the aim of building on the work of this Nobel prize-winner(1) for chemistry – came from Michel Carpentier, who was in charge of information technology research programmes. He was convinced that Prigogine's theories on complex systems could lead to developments and applications in many fields(2). The latter, for his part, knew that the mathematics and physics of complexity had been the subject of advanced research at a number of Russian schools (Kolmogorov, Gelfand, Fock, Bokoyobov) and that any programme should certainly draw on their knowledge and abilities. It took a one-year pilot phase to identify the partners before the main five-year project phase was launched in 1994.
But what exactly are these complex systems? They are characterised by a state of non-equilibrium and the autonomous creation of information. They are also sometimes called auto-innovative or auto-organised. Whether it is the Earth's climate or the human brain, the flow of information on the Internet or in any living organism, the entire universe or the New York stock exchange, they are all systems with a common characteristic: they are in part unpredictable and cannot be explained by determinist mathematical principles alone.
'It was Ilya Prigogine's genius to be able to recognise the order behind the apparent chaos of all these systems,' explains project coordinator Ioannis Antoniou, who studied for his PhD under Prigogine, later becoming his close associate and vice-president of the Solvay Institutes in Brussels. 'Since that day, my own fate has been very closely linked with that of Russia. I have an office at Moscow University, as did Prigogine himself. The impressive results achieved over the past five years cover such a vast field that we can hope to achieve results in many directions.'
'Behaviour often seems chaotic at the individual level, but if you hit upon the right aggregation of data, marvellous statistical laws are revealed to you, a melody concealed beneath all the noise,' Antoniou continues. Why? 'This is because the behaviour of individuals is interdependent and this interdependence is evident in regularities on a larger scale – and often even on several scales. In many cases, the laws are auto-similar, meaning that they show the same profile for different scales, like fractal curves.'
These notions are at the basis of an approach that makes it possible to study systems of every kind by means of the same mathematical methods. It is this aspect that the EU-Russian project has developed in various fields of study, producing impressive results.
|Ilya Prigogine liked to communicate his interest in science to young people. He is shown here after giving a physics lesson to 12-year-olds at La Cordeille d'Ollioules, near Toulon (FR).|
At the end of the five years, there was clearly a need to pursue the research further. But the rules of the game had changed and urgent measures were no longer justified. Scientific co-operation between the European Union and Russia was beginning to evolve in the new framework of international and competitive participation in the Union’s calls for proposals. For Russian researchers, the transition was not always easy. 'Some scientists were not able to submit projects that were competitive by European standards,' explains Antoniou. ’The Commission's new programme also required scope for commercial applications, and not all the teams were able to demonstrate this. It is one thing to switch from a theoretical modelling to an algorithm which uses its principles, but something else again to use these algorithms in prototype systems and then in realistic and competitive commercial applications.'
Nonetheless, several teams met the challenge and 15 projects, originating in research fields initiated thanks to Prigogine, passed the test, most of them based at Moscow University, St Petersburg University and the Nuclear Research Institute in Dubna. 'The previous programme had given us a boost,' notes Melnikov. At Moscow University, an autonomous dynamic had clearly been generated with the creation, in 1995, of the Institute for the Mathematical Study of Complex Systems (with Prigogine as honorary president), which proved fertile terrain for the development of basic theoretical tools.
The scope for applications
The Commission tends to finance projects at the point where theories give rise to applications, which it has done in fields as diverse as immunoinformatics, stock exchange models, quantum computing, or the study of cardiac or cerebral rhythms. At Dubna, Professor Victor Ivanov, director of the Laboratory of Information Technologies, is a specialist in the complexity of the Internet. 'The approach adopted by Ilya Prigogine is the basis we adopt to model the traffic of information packets. A judicious choice in data aggregation reveals stable statistical laws. Knowledge of these laws enables us to detect anomalies and to develop protection systems, as well as tools to optimise the traffic. We are also developing the same kind of approach for stock market forecasting.'
But whether it is in Brussels, Moscow, Dubna or St Petersburg, one element remains constant: the unconditional admiration for Prigogine, at both the scientific and personal level. Iuri describes him as 'a universal spirit, in the great tradition of the Enlightenment'. Vladimir Belokurov, vice-rector of Moscow University, describes the Nobel laureate as 'always open and ready to listen to others, interested in the ideas of the young and ready to give them a push in the right direction.' Others maintain that Prigogine was ahead of his time. 'We are convinced that his thinking will influence the 21st century,' observes Antoniou. 'But he was already thinking further ahead. He said that after irreversibility and auto-organisation the next big challenge for science would be to shed light on the relationship between the body and the soul.'
Prigogine, who published a number of notable works with the philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers(3), never paid attention to disciplinary barriers. First drawn to law, he studied psychology before turning to chemistry and then physics and mathematics. Each area of interest led him to another, even more fundamental one. Alexey Sissakian, vice-president of the Dubna Institute, describes him as an old-fashioned philosopher: 'He was deeply convinced that the distinctions between physics, chemistry and other disciplines introduced artificial barriers, whereas nature forms a continuously interacting whole.'
(1) The prize was for his theory of dissipative structures by which a system far from a state of equilibrium can suddenly become ordered (the living cell for example). Prigogine sheds light on the dynamic of unstable systems and their importance, whereas physics had traditionally concentrated on stability.
(2) After the departure of Michel Carpentier, this idea received the enthusiastic backing of George Metakides.
(3) Recommended reading: I. Prigogine et I. Stengers, La Nouvelle Alliance, Paris, Gallimard, 1979 – I. Prigogine, Physique, temps et devenir, Paris, Masson, 1982 – I. Prigogine et I. Stengers, Entre le temps et l'éternité, Paris, Fayard, 1988 – I. Prigogine, Les lois du chaos, Paris, Flammarion, 1994 – I. Prigogine, La fin des certitudes , Paris, Odile Jacob, 1996.