Dissipative Structures

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= explaining our global world through the laws of thermodynamics


John Robb:

"If we view our world as a thermodynamic system, a simple application of the second law of thermodynamics won't suffice. Everything doesn't get progressively worse over time. Based on our collective experience, the global system, as well as simpler biological systems, operate on a different basis. They don't run down with the conversion of energy. Instead, they increase their structural complexity over time.

The modification of thermodynamics necessary to accommodate this observable fact was formulated by the Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine in a theory called "dissipative systems" (read his excellent book: "The End of Certainty" for more). One important leap in this theory is that a dissipative system isn't a closed system. Rather, it lives within a larger system (an "environment") that it can interact with.

This upshot of this is that it can extract energy from this larger external environment to increase its structural complexity (build itself up through a process called self-assembly). It can also use this external environment to dump the entropy created during the energy conversion process to minimize the deleterious impact on its structure.

In summary, the global civilization we inhabit fits nicely within Prigogine's theory of dissipative structures. Unfortunately, there are numerous signs that that our system's structure has grown so large, that is now nearly equal in size of its external environment. This implies that disruptive fluctuations will likely increase in intensity (positive feedback loops) until the global system either reverts to a much simpler model (closer to thermodynamic equilibrium, think Kunstler's "World Made by Hand") or evolves into a more stable configuration (think "Resilient Communities")."


2. Andreas Keller:

"The concept of dissipative structures derives from the work of Ilya Prigogine.

What is a dissipative structure?

A dissipative structure is a dynamic entity that keeps its entropy (think of this meaning “disorder” for the time being) constant, or even reducing entropy (i.e., increasing order), by exporting the entropy it generates. It takes up low entropy energy or material from the environment, “imprints” it with the entropy it produces and releases the entropy-laden material or energy back into the environment. For example, a tree takes up light from the sun. The sun light comes in in more or less parallel rays, in a narrow band of high frequencies. A large part of its energy is what is called “free energy” in physics, energy that can be used to do something useful, as opposed to mere heat. This energy is relatively ordered. It can be imprinted with entropy. The radiation the plant gives off, on the other hand, is spread over a larger spectrum of lower energy infrared wavelengths being radiated diffusely into all directions. That means it is less ordered or has higher entropy. IV.5 There are entities that are not dissipative structures. As an example, take a crystal. When a crystal grows, its order increases. However, there are also partially random processes that produce some amount of complexity and disorder at the same time."


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