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The End of Certainty [Hardcover]

Ilya Prigogine
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 17 1997
Time, the fundamental dimension of our existence, has fascinated artists, philosophers, and scientists of every culture and every century. All of us can remember a moment as a child when time became a personal reality, when we realized what a "year" was, or asked ourselves when "now" happened. Common sense says time moves forward, never backward, from cradle to grave. Nevertheless, Einstein said that time is an illusion. Nature's laws, as he and Newton defined them, describe a timeless, deterministic universe within which we can make predictions with complete certainty. In effect, these great physicists contended that time is reversible and thus meaningless.

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In this intellectually challenging book, Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine tackles some of the difficult questions that bedevil physicists trying to provide an explanation for the world we observe. How is it, for instance, that basic principles of quantum mechanics--which lack any differentiation between forward and backward directions in time--can explain a world with an "arrow of time" headed unambiguously forward? And how do we escape classical physics' assertion that the world is deterministic? In a sometimes mathematical and frequently mind-bending book, Prigogine explores deterministic chaos, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and even cosmology and the origin of the universe in an attempt to reach an explanation that can reconcile physical laws with subjective reality.

From Booklist

Since adolescence, Nobel laureate Prigogine has been haunted by the thorny problem of time, which has so preoccupied him that he scrawled "Time precedes existence" on a scientific memorial in Moscow. One of the founders of chaos theory, Prigogine has for decades propounded a view contrary to the assumption of temporal reversibility that is commonly accepted by theoretical physicists (ordinary folk have always been baffled by the idea that minus-t and plus-t [terms representing, respectively, time going backward and going forward] can somehow ever be the same). Although accepting relativity and the time-space continuum, Prigogine proposes a radical synthesis of Newtonian and quantum physics that is intriguing enough to reward the tough going that the book's intense concentration of formulas (on which Prigogine's arguments center) will be for most general readers. Prigogine claims that it is time's arrow that finally makes clear how probabilities become actualities and how "becoming" becomes "being." A groundbreaking work by a major figure in today's scientific revolution. Patricia Monaghan

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Customer Reviews

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Crucial Piece of the Puzzle Aug. 31 2001
Many people presume that the integration of various domains of science into a single unified "superscience" will ultimately show that everything reduces to physics. In fact, one earlier reviewer of "The End of Certainty" closed his review saying, "Biology is, in the end, physics."
There is a way in which biology could be "reduced" to physics, but only if we learn to define "physics" very differently than we do today. Prigogine shows why biology CANNOT be reduced to context-independent, deterministic contemporary physics. (Read Robert Rosen's "Essays on Life Itself" for the most profound and fundamental explanation, based on non-integrable, complex, "impredicative loops of efficient causation".)
"The End of Certainty" is an important work because it points toward a revolutionary realignment of fundamental physical principles, theoretical perspectives, and even scientific methodology. In fact, it draws together many of the crucial elements that ultimately will result in the inevitable emergence of a fundamentally transformed model of scientific epistemology. It's an important snapshot of a pivotal stage in the evolution of scientific knowledge.
There has not been a coherent major shift in the foundational paradigms of physical science since the emergence of relativity and quantum physics in the early 20th century. The pioneers of those physical models, if not the models themselves, behaved as feuding brothers from the start. That disputatious relationship is perhaps best typified by Einstein's famous rebuke of the indeterminacy of quantum physics: "God does not play dice with the universe.
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In a world gone crazy with Bohr's "observer-driven collapse of the wave function", Everett's surreal "many-worlds theory", and Einstein's discomforting "reversibility of time-flow direction", Prigogine stands as possibly the sole (or last?) defender of commonsensical notions of time in physics (which equals to say, of sanity!). He is the Champion of Time, bow, arrow, and all! His weapon: a "bow" of decades of successes (including a Noble Prize) in nonequilibrium thermodynamics. His ammunition, a quite peculiar arrow: the arrow of time. But just as happens with many literary characters, not only his virtue but also his vice may spring out of the very same source; in his case, his "sane" notions about Nature...
This book will very likely prove readable by most general readers, like myself, provided the technical parts are carefully skipped, and the central ideas are correctly spotted. It truly presents essential insights to issues like: the emergence of complexity; self-organization; the nature of matter; determinism vs probability; and the validity of time symmetry in both quantum mechanics and classical mechanics equations. As to issues like the actual existance of a flow and arrow (direction) of time (which, by the way, is the very subject of the book) and the existence of free will, the book may be too far from conclusive...
It seemed to me (only top experts could really tell for sure) that Prigogine showed compelling evidence supporting the idea that, contrary to the prevailing notions in the field of physics, there is time asymmetry both in quantum mechanics and in classical mechanics. And also, that reality at both these levels is not deterministic, but truly probabilistic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling case for a new worldview Oct. 18 2000
As an earlier reviewer said this book provides a solution to three of the most important problems in science: 1. time's arrow 2. the measurement problem in QM 3. The existence of freewill (and the the death of the absolute determinism of Newton and Einstein). Although the book is short, I think he provided a compelling outline for the solution of all three problems. At times understanding his solutions requires understanding some advance concepts from math and physics. However, I believe an intelligent layman could skim these parts and still follow his presentation. (There is a glossary at the back of the book.)
I wish that Prigogine could have discussed in more detail the philosophical (and perhaps even religious) consequences of this work, which there are many, but few are explored and none are explored in depth. One consequence he does explore briefly is that it appears that "time precedes existence!" And at the end of the book, he also briefly addresses the worldview that emerges from his work. He says: "What is emerging is an 'intermediate' description that lies somewhere between the two alienating images of a deterministic world and an arbitrary world of pure chance. ... As we follow along the narrow path that avoids the dramatic alternatives of blind laws and arbitrary events, we discover that a large part of the concrete world around us has until now 'slipped through the meshes of the scientific net,'to use Alfred North Whitehead's expression."
I give the book my higest recommendation and hope in sequels Prigogone and his co-workers can explore the technical details (textbook level) and the philosophical consequences (layman level) of this very important and exciting work.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars His most detailed updated book
by the late Nobel Laureate on the controversial issue of time's arrow. It's not clear he succeeded but his passion was never missing. Read more
Published on Aug. 24 2007 by Glenn L. E. May
4.0 out of 5 stars New physics for 21st century
I did buy this book some time ago and then I was fascinated. I studied the basis of his theory, but unfortunately, Prigogine passed away recently, before I can discuss with he some... Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2003 by Juan R. Gonzalez-Alvarez
5.0 out of 5 stars Controversial...but worth reading !
Much controversy from what i can see from other reviewers...
Nevertheless, whether or not you think an "arrow of time" exists or not, this book at least has the... Read more
Published on Feb. 4 2001 by Steve Uhlig
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book for the advanced reader
Prigogine mixes history, philosophy, classical , quantum and statistical mechanics to review the status of philosophy of science and the lack of methods to handle non integrable... Read more
Published on Dec 26 2000 by Richard Axor
5.0 out of 5 stars I admire Prigogine's patience...
Over the years (and it's been something close to 60 of them) Prigogine has almost single-handedly defined non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Read more
Published on Oct. 10 2000 by Zentao
5.0 out of 5 stars Physically sound
The writers do not challenge the validity of quantum mechanics. They point out, that microscopic reversability is compatible with the existence of an arrow of time in the observed... Read more
Published on Dec 10 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant - probably solves 3 fundamental problems
In a direct extension of his Nobel-prize-winning work on thermodynamics,Prigogine explains that almost all natural systems are non-determinsitic, even if all their components are... Read more
Published on Jan. 1 1999
5.0 out of 5 stars Science finds time, it's about time! Philosophically import.
Oh well, I loved this book and think Prigogine's work is of fundamental importance. The math's not bad if you're from an engineering or science background, otherwise skip the math... Read more
Published on Dec 31 1998 by Gary R. Bradski
4.0 out of 5 stars Time does have an arrow
Nobel Laureate Prigogine describes how the lack of infinitely precise measurements and non-linear behavior in the laws of nature give rise to the arrow of time experienced by all... Read more
Published on Oct. 17 1998
3.0 out of 5 stars I've still got my certainty...
The author seems too argumentative in this book. His main premise seems to rest on the idea that we cannot succesfully achieve the needed precision of measurment to show time as... Read more
Published on Oct. 13 1998
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