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The Australian National University

Dewar Lab - Entropy production in biological & physical systems

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Professor Roderick Dewar

Building 46,
Research School of Biology,
The Australian National University,
Acton, ACT 0200
T: 61252447


Roderick Dewar studied mathematical physics at the University of Edinburgh (BSc Hons, 1982), where he also carried out his PhD in the field of statistical mechanics and phase transitions (1983-1986). As a postdoc he continued working in this field in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University before undergoing his own phase transition to biology in 1989. Since then he has worked at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (now the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) in Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (School of Biological Sciences) in Sydney, and the French National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA) in Bordeaux. In 2008 he returned to Australia to take up his present position at the ANU.

His current research looks at the emergent behaviour of complex biological and physical systems - whether individual organisms, ecosystems, turbulent fluids or Earth's climate system - from the common viewpoint of entropy, as the statistical outcome of a large number of underlying degrees of freedom. The main focus is on the principles of maximum entropy and maximum entropy production, and their application to biological problems across a wide range of scales - from understanding the evolutionary optimization of biologically important macromolecules to identifying the key determinants of species diversity in ecological communities.


Currently I contribute lectures and practicals to
  • BIOL2122 Plant Functional Diversity: genomes to biomes
  • BIOL2202 Experimental Design and Analysis in Biology
In these courses I teach aspects of models and modelling in biology.

I am also course convener (January - November cohort) of
  • BIOL4001F Biology Honours Program
  • BIOL8701 Master Advanced Program: Biology Research Project

Research interests

  • Maximum Entropy Production as a unifying thermodynamic principle in biology and physics
  • Optimisation models of plant responses to global change
  • Entropy-based approaches to studying ecological and genetic diversity
Here's an overview of our research, which spans biology and physics, theory and applications:

Current projects

Theory and application of Maximum Entropy Production

Looking at what plants and ecosystems do from a thermodynamic perspective        Show more detail...

Plant optimisation modelling

Optimisation models: new tools for global change science        Show more detail...

Entropy, information theory and biodiversity

New entropy-based tools for understanding ecological and genetic diversity        Show more detail...

Student research opportunities

Where physics and maths meet biology

Research challenges at the physics-maths-biology interface        Show more detail...

Lab members

  • Jason Bertram (PhD student)
  • Roddy Dewar (Lab Leader)
  • Michael Thorpe (Divisional Visitor)

» Go to lab directory


Selected publications

Check out our new book ...

*ANU undergraduate PhB student

Dewar RC, Lineweaver CH, Niven RK, Regenauer-Lieb K. 2014. Beyond the second law: an overview. In Beyond The Second Law: Entropy Production and Non-equilibrium Systems (eds: Dewar RC, Lineweaver CH, Niven RK, Regenauer-Lieb K), Springer (Book Series: Understanding Complex Systems), pp. 3-27

Dewar RC, Maritan A. 2014. A theoretical basis for maximum entropy production. In Beyond The Second Law: Entropy Production and Non-equilibrium Systems (eds: Dewar RC, Lineweaver CH, Niven RK, Regenauer-Lieb K), Springer (Book Series: Understanding Complex Systems), pp. 49-71

Bertram J, Dewar RC. 2013. Statistical patterns in tropical tree cover explained by the different water demand of individual trees and grasses. Ecology, 94, 2138-2144

McMurtrie RE, Dewar RC. 2013. New insights into carbon allocation by trees from the hypothesis that annual wood production is maximised. New Phytologist, DOI: 10.1111/nph.12344.

Dewar RC, Tarvainen L, Parker K*, Wallin G, McMurtrie RE. 2012. Why does leaf nitrogen decline within tree canopies less rapidly than light? An explanation from optimization subject to a lower bound on leaf mass per area. Tree Physiology 31, 520-534.

McMurtrie RE, Iversen CM, Dewar RC, Medlyn BE, Näsholm T, Pepper DA, Norby RJ. 2012. Plant root distributions and nitrogen uptake predicted by a hypothesis of optimal root foraging. Ecology & Evolution 2(6), 1235-1250.

Franklin O, Johansson J, Dewar RC, Dieckmann U, McMurtrie RE, Brännström Å, Dybzinski R. 2012. Modeling carbon allocation in trees: a search for principles. Tree Physiology 32, 648-666.

Dewar RC, Sherwin WB, Thomas E*, Holleley CE, Nichols RA. 2011. Predictions of single-nucleotide polymorphism differentiation between two populations in terms of mutual information. Molecular Ecology 20, 3156-3166.

McMurtrie RE, Dewar RC. 2011. Leaf trait variation explained by the hypothesis that plants maximise their canopy carbon export over the lifespan of leaves. Tree Physiology 31, 1007-1023.

Dewar RC. 2010. Maximum entropy production and plant optimization theories. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) 365, 1429-1435. Contribution to Theme Issue (eds. Kleidon A, Cox PM, Mahli Y): Maximum entropy production in ecological and environmental systems: applications and implications.

Dewar RC, Franklin O, Mäkelä A, McMurtrie RE, Valentine HT. 2009. Optimal function explains forest responses to global change. BioScience 59(2), 127-139.

Dewar RC. 2009. Maximum entropy production as an inference algorithm that translates physical assumptions into macroscopic predictions: Don’t shoot the messenger. Entropy 11, 931-944. Contribution to Special Issue (eds. Dyke J, Kleidon A): What is Maximum Entropy Production and how should we apply it?

Magnani F, Dewar RC, Borghetti M. 2009. Leakage and spillover effects of forest management on carbon storage: theoretical insights from a simple model. Tellus B 61, 385-393.

Dewar RC, Porté A. 2008. Statistical mechanics unifies different ecological patterns. Journal of Theoretical Biology 251, 389-403.

McMurtrie RE, Norby RJ, Medlyn BE, Dewar RC, Pepper DA, Reich PB, Barton CVM. 2008. Why is plant growth response to CO2 amplified when water is limiting, but reduced when nitrogen is limiting? A growth-optimisation hypothesis. Functional Plant Biology 35, 521-534.

Dewar RC, Juretić D, Županović P. 2006. The functional design of the rotary enzyme ATP synthase is consistent with maximum entropy production. Chemical Physics Letters 430, 177-182.

Dewar RC. 2005. Maximum entropy production and the fluctuation theorem. Journal of Physics A (Mathematical and General) 38, L371-L381.

Dewar RC. 2004. Maximum entropy production and non-equilibrium statistical mechanics. In Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics and Entropy Production : Life, Earth and Beyond (eds. Kleidon A, Lorenz R), Springer-Verlag, pp. 41-55.

Dewar RC. 2003. Information theoretic explanation of maximum entropy production, the fluctuation theorem and self-organized criticality in non-equilibrium stationary states. Journal of Physics A (Mathematical and General) 36, 631-641.

All publications

Click here to see a full list of publications on the ISI website...


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