Science in Christian Perspective


New Insights into Thermodynamics

Jerry Albert
Mercy Hospital Medical Research Facility 
San Diego, California

From: JASA 60 (September 1978): 143.

Scientific work which refutes the claim that the theory of evolution contradicts or violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, has been awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Dr. llya Prigogine's work extends the laws of thermodynamics to systems far from equilibrium. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is often described as if it applied to all systems under all circumstances and conditions. Although the Second Law predicts that reactions of matter near equilibrium conditions tend toward greater homogeneity and less complexity, there are many reactions in natural systems far from equilibrium that increase in complexity.

Prigogine's initial observation of this type of reaction in hydrodynamics was the formation of convection currents and vortices in a fluid subjected to a temperature gradient. Such systems are
maintained at the cost of some energy (the fluid being unevenly heated). Vortices are highly correlated motions and convection currents are orderly and directional. Non-equilibrium differences of temperature create molecular order. Prigogine admitted that the theorem of minimum entropy production for near equilibrium systems that he proposed in 1945, is not valid. His Nobel Prizewinning work indicates that the condition necessary so that new structures may appear is a catalytic or cross-catalytic step.

Many reactions of this type have since been discovered experimentally in biological systems. Life processes work under nonequilibrium systems, and living matter consists of structures that exist in states that are far from equilibrium. Examples cited are the growth of an entire plant from a seed and the formation of amino acids from primordial soup. Nature is full of processes that spontaneously bring order from chaos and that thrive in seeming contempt of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Prigogine's work reconciled the Second Law with the obvious facts of life. He realized that in certain systems - self-catalytic chemical reactions, for example - perturbations that get far enough away from thermal equilibrium will no longer subside but will continue to grow. Such a system eventually can reach a new, stable configuration far from equilibrium; it will then maintain itself against thermal disruption by a continuous throughput of matter and energy, which carry off internally generated entropy to the outside.

Prigogine's work, according to his article in Physics Today, November 1972, may be providing a theoretical framework for understanding the ultimate example of 'self-catalysis" - the origin of life. Only the unwary or uninformed would fall prey to the invalid argument that the Second Law of Thermodynamics contradicts biological evolution.