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Dare to Be 100: We Are Dissipative Structures

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Last night I pursued a general habit of wakening to recover an old memory. It concerned Jay Portnow, M.D. Jay was in the audience of a talk that I was giving at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco maybe 25 years ago to a convention of physical medicine docs of which he is a prominent member.

In my talk, I was musing about why my leg recently emerged from six weeks in a long leg cast as a result of a ski accident and became precociously old. It wasn't old as the other leg was just as old and it was fine, nor was it because I pulled a tendon off, because the surgeon could have put the cast on the other leg and the same thing would have happened. My leg became old because it was in a cast.

This mystery fascinated me. There was nothing in the medical literature to go on. I was clearly puzzled. A hand shot up from the audience, Jay's.

"Have you read any of Prigogine's work?" I had never ever heard of Prigogine, but I quickly learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1977 for explicating the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Jay had subsequently studied with him.

I quickly read his book Order Out of Chaos (1), and then had one of the most "Eureka!" moments of my life. Prigogine's book explained precisely why my leg became precociously old. Carl Sagan called understanding a form of ecstasy. I was ecstatic.

Prigogine inspired insights continued to mount. He had become one of my intellectual heroes. He had already been acknowledged for his extrapolation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He coined the term "dissipative structures" to describe how an energy flow on matter becomes form and structure. This was an immediate extension of Schrodinger's "What is Life" insight about the Second Law and our nature. Schrodinger opened the door. Prigogine opened it wider.

My introduction to this great man involved a very personal encounter when I had the opportunity to visit him in his apartment in Austin, Texas where he was serving an academic appointment (12/6/1999). My friendship with Linus Pauling was an effective intro. I took the moment to have a photo of the encounter that is prominently displayed on my wall. I told him of my devotion to his introduction and enlightenment to the field of aging and its components. He in turn told me of his struggle to define time in physico-temporal terms. Other physicists, including Einstein, similarly wrestled with the phenomenon of time with little respite. Unfortunately, Prigogine was very ill at the time of my visit. He was actually on dialysis and died shortly thereafter.

This contact was important to me as I am now embarked with Leonard Hayflick in creating an international conference at the annual meeting of the Gerontologic Society in Washington in November. The title of our meeting is "The Second Law of Thermodynamics and the Etiology of Biologic Aging." I am excited by this prospect.

I wrote in an earlier blog that the medical system has not come up to speed in this important domain.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the central organizational principles of the universe. However, it remains a backwater of scientific pursuit. It is remarkable to me that one of the basic pillars of understanding is not in the medical vocabulary.

This reflects on my friendship with Jay Portnow, and I am encouraging him to work with me to enlarge this recognition. We are all dissipative structures, whether we know it or not.


1. Prigogine, I Stengers I Order Out Of Chaos 1989 Bantam, New York