Friday, March 27, 2009

Emergence, chaos, and complexity in chemistry

The first issue of the new journal Nature Chemistry has a nice "thesis" article by Bruce C. Gibb suggesting that chemists may benefit from a greater engagement with chaos theory. The article mentions the most famous example of nonlinear dynamics in chemistry: the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction and I followed the link to the beautiful videos on YouTube.

Perhaps due to space limitations, the article did mention that Prigogine received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for developing the theory of such non-equilibrium states or "dissipative structures". A nice accessible introduction is in the undergraduate text, Modern Thermodynamics, chapter 19, by Dilip Konderpudi and Ilya Prigogine (Wiley, 1998).

These non-equilibrium states illustrate several important points

* complex spatial and temporal patterns can emerge from simply local dynamics

* the nature of the emergent structure is independent of most of the specific details of the chemical and physical composition of the components

* open systems do not always tend towards homogeneous and static equilibrium states
(i.e., the second law of thermodynamics does not preclude the emergence of order)

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