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Ilya Prigogine -- towards a unity of science and culture

By Carol M. ThurstonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1980


Three years after receiving the Nobel Prize in chemistry, Ilya Prigogine spends part of his time helping to put into practice what he tried to show through his theoretical work -- the unity of science and culture.

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"I am very much against the priesthood of science, against isolating scientist, putting them in ivory towers. Why shouldn't science be a part of the cultural process, when today the future of the world depends very much on sience , technology, and new inventions?" Dr. Prigogine asks.

Prigogine, who splits his time between the University of Texas at Austin and the Free University of Brussels, has been asked to prepare a report for the European Community on possible new incentives for European research. He will propose a "Perception Center," out of which a "kind of national science center for Europe could be formed for improving the integration of science into European society."

Science is more "fragmented and withdrawn" in Europe than in the United States, Prigogine says. He envisions the center as a place where issues "on the borderline" between science and society could be discussed, and which could also instigate research in areas where European society feels it is needed. "You have something like this in the United States in the National Academy of Sciences," he says, "but I would like to see people outside of science represented, to make the interaction between scientists and other people as free as possible. I think if such a center had existed the discussions on nuclear energy would not have taken the form they have."

Like European unity, Prigogine says, this plan is an ambitious but not impossible idea. "The European Community budget now is largely devoted to agriculture. It seems not impossible to diversity into scientific research and development." He had been in contact with most of the governments of the nine Community members and says, "I consider it [the plan] like the product of two quantities -- the chances of realizing it are very small and the object is very large, so the product is finite."

Prigogine's views are the "flip" side of the cliche that science has become too important to be left to the scientists. Once asked why he and other scientists were becoming more interested in social problems, Prigogine responded , "because they are too important to be left to social scientists."

But it has been his refusal to accept reality as a divided world, whether it be the "two cultures" of C.P. Snow or contradictory laws governing physical and biological systems, that underlies Prigogine's theoritical intuition and philosophical viewpoint.

Today Prigogine assesses the significance of his work in thermodynamics first in terms of its contributions to changing how scientists think. "The importance of far-from-equilibrium conditions has now permeated our thinking. The number of papers dealing with the way in which new structures may originate is enormous ," he says. He also sees his work as a contribution to a new way of perceiving the world around us, in which instability, nonlinearity, and fluctuations are the key words, rather than stability, predictability, and universality.

"Take, for example, the problem of climate," Prigogine says."The classical idea was that we have to live in a climate that was made by God, by some initial [set] conditions. Now we know that change can occur, not because the sun doesn't send us a constant amount of energy, but as the result of some nonlinear interaction between the energy that comes from the outside world and the surface of the earth. The climate is not stable or eternal; many conditions are possible. So now we believe in neither a promise of paradise nor that we are doomed to decline and destruction in a world that is running down. We see that more depends on us, on how we handle these problems."

In classical physics, Prigogine explains, time was a parameter with no past and no future, yet all physical and psychological life is one-directional. "We don't play the piano the same tomorrow as we did today." Because of this conflict, he believes, "science was an unstable insertion into society" that pushed philosophers to develop a "second way of thinking" in opposition to scientific knowledge, and this conflict came to dominate Western thought.

"Now this dilemma is no more so much with us, and we can at least consider a noncontradictory unity of knowledge. We must go beyond the temptation to define the eternal as truth and the temporal as illusion."

Prigogine has described his own and other work that has contributed to this "metamorphosis of science" in his new book, written with Isabelle Stengers and published in France by Gallimard. It is entitled "La Nouvelle Alliance" ("The New Alliance") and is scheduled for publication in English this year.