Electricity surging between two lumps of coal. (Photo: Joe Belanger/Shutterstock)

Almost 900 confirmed participants joined “WOST II” — the second annual workshop that focuses on stochastic thermodynamics and its application to many issues involving complex systems. 

A young field, stochastic thermodynamics is a fast-developing branch of statistical physics that is revolutionizing our ability to analyze systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium. It grew out of investigations into nano-scale systems, systems that are larger than micro-scale systems — whose entropy cannot change with time — but smaller than macro-scale systems, whose entropy can increase but never decrease. 

Most complex systems, like economies or ecosystems, rest squarely in the realm of the “macro.” However, workshop co-organizer David Wolpert (SFI Professor) points out that even though stochastic thermodynamics grew out of analyses of nano-scale systems, the theorems of stochastic thermodynamics apply to any system, no matter what its size, so long as it evolves according to a “Markov process.” In particular, many of those theorems apply even if the system has no obvious thermodynamic interpretation. For example, many of the theorems of stochastic thermodynamics apply to the dynamics of opinion networks in social systems, and to genomes evolving according to the “stochastic replicator dynamics” of evolution, just as much as they apply to the heat engines and chemical reaction networks that they were designed to investigate.

During the first meeting, which convened online in 2020 and was hosted by Complexity Science Hub Vienna, senior physicists in both stochastic thermodynamics and complex systems presented possible connections between their fields. This year’s SFI workshop continues to explore these connections and is again bringing together the most prominent researchers in the field. In addition, the agenda in 2021 is showcasing the work of early-career scientists, who were invited to apply to give 10-minute "lightning talks” throughout the five-day meeting.

“We had 15 lightning talk slots for postdocs and grad students, and received 136 applications,” says Wolpert. "That’s a more selective acceptance rate than [the journal] Nature!"

The presentations fall into five broad areas where stochastic thermodynamics is currently being applied: physics and chemistry, biophysics, “active matter” (such as molecular motors that consume energy and are out-of-equilibrium), quantum stochastic thermodynamics, and quantum information theory. Each topic has its own dedicated day on the agenda, which kicks off with a day of tutorials on May 17.

Unlike in-person SFI workshops, which are limited to 50-60 participants by the occupancy of the Noyce conference room, the online format has allowed the organizers to draw from a much larger pool of global researchers. 

“One of the great things about having a virtual workshop is that it allows us to include people without the funding to attend an in-person conference, and to reach out to people in the third world, many of whom have a hard time participating in the central research streams of modern science,” says Wolpert.

A follow-up working group for women Ph.D.s and postdocs in stochastic thermodynamics will meet on June 10, again online. 

The WOST II workshop and tutorials are open to all and free of charge. Register online through the event wiki.

[This article was updated May 25, 2021 with a new participant count of "almost 900" (up from 570 on May 11, 2021)]