James J. Kay

James J. Kay
Born (1954-06-18)June 18, 1954
Died May 30, 2004(2004-05-30) (aged 49)
Residence Canada
Fields complexity and thermodynamics
Institutions University of Waterloo
University of Guelph
Alma mater McGill University
University of Waterloo

James J. Kay (June 18, 1954 – May 30, 2004) was an ecological scientist and policy-maker. He was a respected physicist best known for his theoretical work on complexity and thermodynamics.


James Kay held a BS in Physics from McGill University and a Ph.D in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo. His Ph.D. thesis was entitled Self-Organization in Living Systems.[1][2] Much of his work relates to integrating thermodynamics into an understanding of self-organization in biological systems.[3] For example, when water in a pot is heated, it will spontaneously form convection currents such as Bénard_cell. This is an example where as the amount of energy available to a system increases, the system self-organizes in order to dissipate energy more efficiently. Kay has examined how similar types of self-organization can occur within living systems at the level of individual organisms and ecosystems. In other words, organisms and ecosystems evolve to use the maximum amount of energy available to them. This has been backed up by studies showing that more mature ecosystems such as old growth forests are cooler (i.e. dissipate more incoming energy) than clear cuts or bare rock that receive the same amount of energy.[4][5]

Kay was an Associate Professor of Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo, with cross-appointments in Systems Design Engineering, Geography, Management Sciences, and the School of Planning. He was also cross-posted to the School of Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph.[2]

Public Policy


Kay was founding Chair of the University of Waterloo's Greening the Campus Committee (1990–1996), which is responsible for overseeing the transition to a sustainable campus. He was also a founding member of the City of Kitchener's Environment Committee, which developed a Strategic Plan for the Environment and an ecosystem-based plan for the Huron Natural Area. He sat on the committee which developed the award-winning (Canadian Institute of Planners) bicycle master plan for Kitchener, and was on the City's committee for the transition to a hydrogen economy.[2]

Provincial and National

Kay served as an adviser to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and delivered guest lectures to the National Ministry of the Environment. He served on the Long Term Ecosystem Research and Monitoring Panel of the Royal Society of Canada.[2]


Kay was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Beijer Institute, Working Group on Complex Ecological Economic Systems Modeling. He was also an active member of the United States National Science Foundation Advisory Committee on Environmental Research and Education.[2]



  1. Kay, James J. (1984), Self-Organization in Living Systems, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Department of Systems Design Engineering, University of Waterloo
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 James Kay's Website, as he left it on his death
  3. Memorial presented by David Waltner-Toews on July 11, 2004, at the Welcome Sessions of the International Society for Ecological Economics, Montreal, Canada
  4. Minkel, JR (October 5, 2002), "The meaning of life", New Scientist, retrieved January 17, 2010
  5. Fraser, R. A.; Kay, J. J. (2002), Quattrochi, D. A.; Luvall, J. C., eds., "Exergy Analysis of Eco-Systems: Establishing a Role for the Thermal Remote Sensing", Thermal Remote Sensing in Land Surface Processes, Taylor & Francis


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