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Volodymyr Vernadsky’s scientific and prophetic visions
Lesya Lytovchenko probes into the scientific visions of Academician Vernadsky — are his ideas, revolutionary or eccentric, depending on the point of view, still relevant today?
It is probably enough to have a very considerable talent of a scientist in order to graduate from measuring and describing minerals to studying their genesis or to progress from studying the history of chemical elements and of their compounds to laying the foundation of geochemistry.
But it takes a genius in order to fill the seemingly unbridgeable gap that existed in science in understanding what is the animate and what is the inanimate in nature and to virtually create a new science, biochemistry, to find the earthly links with the cosmos, to discover the Breath of Earth, to assess properly the geological consequences of human activities, to map the ways the biosphere interacts with the noosphere, to show the cosmic significance of biological life on the Earth, to penetrate into the secrets of the chemistry of a living being, to call science a natural phenomenon, to put forward an idea that there is a special kind of energy that maintains and controls the functioning of the Earth as an enormously complicated mechanism. All of these insights were gained in enormous bursts of creative energy, and they were produced by one and the same person, Volodymyr Vernadsky.
In the spring of 1889, the English naturalist Caruters observed the grandiose movement of locusts from South Africa to Arabia — dense, heavy clouds of these insects were rolling over his head. He was overwhelmed by what he saw and he calculated how much the mass of locusts that passed over his head weighed and how much space it occupied in the sky. According to Caruters, the total mass of the locusts was 44 million tons and they occupied an area of 5,967 square kilometers. The naturalist published his observations and findings in Issue 42 of the British magazine Nature in 1890. One of the regular readers of the magazine in Russia, Volodymyr Vernadsky, associate professor of the Department of Mineralogy, Moscow University, read the article, found it curious and went on reading other articles. But a short time later he returned to the article — there was something in it that piqued his interest. He vaguely felt that he could build a connection between his research and the facts described in Caruter’s article. Three decades later, after years of intensive research and intellectual probing, Vernadsky arrived at the idea the geosphere, or nonliving world, and the biosphere, or living world (i.e., the total mass of living organisms, which process and recycle the energy and nutrients available from the environment), thus becoming one of the founders — or should we say: the founder? — of the theory of the biosphere. He wrote: “That cloud of locusts, translated into chemical elements and metric tons, can be considered analogous to a rock formation, or rather to a moving rock formation which is endowed with free energy. Against the amazing grandeur and diversity of Living Nature, a cloud of locusts is an insignificant and passing phenomenon. There exist immeasurably more grandiose and powerful phenomena — deposits of corals and calcareous algae, plankton stretching for thousands of kilometers across the oceans, the Sargasso Sea, or the taiga of the Western Siberia are examples of such phenomena. All of these are individual facts among the many other phenomena of the same order. Similar masses of the living matter can be equated with the masses of rocks.”
Vernadsky is one of those “classical” scientists whose magic touch turns into science everything they ponder profoundly and analyze. Many of his ideas were much ahead of his time, and thus were not duly appreciated when they were made public. There were even no words or terms available to express them coherently. Now, from the vintage point of the early twenty-first century, we begin to discern with much greater clarity the depth and richness of his thoughts, and his scientific discoveries and insights become ever more relevant. A geochemist and mineralogist at the start of his scientific career, Vernadsky later came to creating a comprehensive theory of the development of the entire planet, connecting the geological facts with anthropological and biological facts.
Vernadsky freely crossed the borders of sciences, moving from one science into another, using the findings in several sciences to create a new one or advance his new, revolutionary ideas — geochemistry and biology, geology and economics, anthropology and philosophy, he used them all advancing theories of a universal character. In fact, new branches of science were developed on the basis of Vernadsky’s pioneering works: geochemistry, biogeochemistry, cosmochemistry, radiochemistry, radiogeology, hydrogeology. This list can be continued.
As time was passing by and new advances in science were being made, it was becoming increasingly evident that Vernadsky’s works provided a new approach to understanding Nature taken as a whole, rather than just opening new directions in the development of sciences. Proceeding from his own new interpretations of what the living matter is — or the living state of matter — and of the perpetuity of life, Vernadsky worked out a theory about the biosphere. He correctly attributed to living things the creation of the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere. He also studied the effects living things have on the chemistry of the Earth’s crust — for example, the subsurface concentrations of certain elements due to biological cycles. Thus his theory suggested a comprehensive approach to the universal character of life and its contribution to the geological processes. This synthetic approach revealed the profound unity and interconnection of all the phenomena observed in our universe. His insights opened a way of reassessing such basic notions as the matter, energy, structure of the Universe, space and time.
It would be wrong to call Vernadsky a mineralogist who turned biologist or chemist or philosopher. He was “a naturalist” in the most comprehensive sense of the word — a naturalist-philosopher probably will be an even better definition. His scientific curiosity was insatiable, his search for new knowledge never slowed down.
The phenomenon of radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and Marie and Pierre Curie made further groundbreaking discoveries which a little later led to a complete dismantling of the theory of atoms and their structure. Curie proved the existence of particles electrically positive, negative, and neutral; these Ernest Rutherford was afterward to call alpha, beta, and gamma rays. Rapid advances in physics brought a staggering proof that the atom was divisible, and that the elements were not unchangeable. For Vernadsky, who was a disciple of Mendeleev, and thus accepted the then belief in the invisibility of atom and unchangeability of chemical elements, this breakthrough in understanding of the composition of atoms was a revelation. When he heard a report on the findings at one of the international conferences that he attended in 1908, he was so impressed that right there and then he admitted that his “eyes have been opened.” Such was his scientific honesty that in a matter of hours he discarded the outdated views and embraced the new ones, a thing that not every scientist would be prepared to do with such ease and in conviction of the correctness of new ideas.
The new discoveries led Vernadsky to the development of new theories concerning the geological structure of the Earth as a planet and the ways the crust was formed. His findings, in their turn, led to the reassessment of the geological age of the planet, which was greatly extended in time to encamp billions of years rather than millions.
Vernadsky’s ideas and theories were slow in making their way to the west — there were several reasons for that — and the ideas of the French scientific theorists Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Edouard Le Roy were much better known than similar ideas and theories advanced by Vernadsky much earlier. Chardin’s “Spirit of the Earth” is close to Vernadsky’s noosphere but there is all the reason to believe that the two theorists arrived at their groundbreaking theories independently of each other (Incidentally, both Chardin’s and Vernadsky’s major works were published posthumously).
A popular magazine article is hardly suited for expounding Vernadsky’s most profound theories in greater detail, and we shall have to limit ourselves to indicating the general directions of his thought.
In Vernadsky’s scientific legacy we find reflections on the most profound issues of ever tackled by man — what is life? Is life a universal cosmic phenomenon and thus much older than the Earth itself, or is a specific feature of our planet? Vernadsky was of the opinion that an answer to this question could only be provided by the cosmos itself. In his notes written back in the years from 1917 to 1921, and published as a book 60 years later (Zhyva rechovyna — “Living Matter”), Vernadsky defines living matter as an aggregate of living organisms which take part in geological processes. He figured out its characteristics which included mass, chemical composition and energy. Back in the 1910s there was no firm scientific evidence available that would unequivocally show the possibility of living matter evolving from nonliving matter. In fact, even today, decades later, we still lack a clear-cut proof that it is possible; neither do we have a smooth theory that would convincingly show how it could happen. We do have though an increasing amount of evidence which suggests that the biosphere has influenced the geological processes — organic deposits in the earth’s crust and the composition of the atmosphere are clear indications of such influence. “Life is a cosmic phenomenon, rather than only a terrestrial one.”
There are several hypotheses of origins of life, perhaps the most fundamental and at the same time the least understood biological problem. It is central to many scientific and philosophical problems. Most of the hypotheses of the origin of life will fall into one of four categories:
1. The origin of life is a result of a supernatural event; that is, one permanently beyond the descriptive powers of physics and chemistry.
2. Life — particularly simple forms — spontaneously and readily arises from nonliving matter in short periods of time, today as in the past.
3. Life is coeternal with matter and has no beginning; life arrived on the Earth at the time of the origin of the earth or shortly thereafter.
4. Life arose on the early Earth by a series of progressive chemical reactions. Such reactions may have been likely or may have required one or more highly improbable chemical events.
Vernadsky’s view is close to the hypotheses grouped under category 3. Without going into details of the present-day theories dealing with the origins of life, we can say that though there is no general consensus about which hypotheses is a more likely scenario, we can safely say that the number of theorists and biologists embracing Vernadsky’s ideas of life being coeternal with matter is on the rise.
The modern-day science has discovered that among the oldest known fossils are those found in the Transvaal — they are dated at 3,100,000,000 years old. These organisms have been identified as bacteria and blue-green algae. Since the Earth is about 4,500,000,000 years old, this suggests that the origin of life must have occurred within a few hundred million years of that time. The fossil record, in any complete sense, goes back only about 600 million years. In the layers of sedimentary rock known by geological methods and by radioactive dating to be that old, most of the major groups of invertebrates appear for the first time. All these organisms appear adapted to life in the water, and there is no sign yet of organisms adapted to the land. For this reason, and because of a rough similarity between the salt contents of blood and of seawater, it is believed that early forms of life developed in oceans or pools. In Precambrian times, solar ultraviolet radiation, particularly destructive to nucleic acids, may have penetrated to the surface of the Earth, rather than being totally absorbed in the upper atmosphere by ozone as it is today. In the absence of ozone, the ultraviolet solar flux is so high that a lethal dose for most organisms would be delivered in less than an hour. Life near the Earth’s surface would have been impossible. As the amount of atmospheric oxygen and ozone increased, mostly due to plant photosynthesis, life increasingly close to the Earth’s surface would have been possible. It has been suggested that the colonization of the land, about 425,000,000 years ago, was possible only because enough ozone was then produced to shield the surface from ultraviolet light for the first time.
Life then had insinuated itself between the sun and the Earth. It diverted solar energy to its own uses and contrived more and more ways of exploiting more and more environments. Some experiments were faulty and the lines became extinct; others were more successful and the lines filled the Earth. Evolution through natural selection directed the proliferation of a growing array of life forms throughout the biosphere. As we see, science of the end of the late twentieth — early twenty-first century has adopted — and adapted — some of Vernadsky’s ideas expounded by him decades ago. “Life is as much part of the Cosmos as energy and matter,” wrote Vernadsky in one of his letters.
Vernadsky also wrote about a great ecological impact Homo Sapiens has made upon the environment. This impact can be compared with geological processes. The present-day ecological situation in many parts of the world bear witness to Vernadsky’s insistence on the ever-growing role the humanity is to play in the state of things on our planet. Vernadsky believed that Homo Sapiens would be intelligent enough to realize that human activities could result in an irreversible damage done to the environment and measures would be taken to prevent it. Measures are being taken, unfortunately not everywhere and not sufficiently. Vernadsky expressed hope that the humanity would not continue “fighting with Nature,” as it used to for such a long time, nor would it idealize the allegedly harmonious relations of man with nature that had existed in time immemorial, but would rather do its best to achieve a right balance and thus contribute to the transition from the biosphere to the noosphere. It is the human intellect that forms the noosphere, according to Vernadsky. “It is the intellectual consciousness of the humanity that becomes a force to be taken into account when we study natural phenomena… It is a force comparable to gravity and other natural forces… It is becoming ever clearer to me that I’m called upon to express radically new ideas that will lead to new understanding of what living matter is…It is my duty to make my ideas public. I feel like a prophet who hears a voice calling to action. I’ve felt I’m possessed by a daimon of Socrates.”
Vernadsky ‘s Universe is a whole in which all the parts, from the tiniest to the biggest, are interconnected in some way, forming an integral unity.
Volodymyr Vernadsky was born in St Petersburg on March 12 1863. His father, Ivan, was a professor. His family had an estate in the village of Velyki Shyshaky in the land of Poltavshchyna, Ukraine, and they often went there to spend the summer.
According to the family lore, the Vernadskys were of Cossack extraction. Volodymyr’s great grandfather, Ivan Vernadsky, was a starshyna (a military rank) of the Zaporizhian Sich Cossacks, and when under the Empress Catherine II, the Sich was dissolved, Ivan, in search of a safer place to live in, made his way to a village in the land of Chernihivshchyna where he settled down. One way or the other, he became a priest but the villagers found him lacking in zeal. Ivan Vernadsky was more preoccupied with getting himself and his children promoted to nobility for which, he claimed, he had inalienable rights as a free Cossack of a high military rank. He did get what he wanted but later he was expelled from the ranks of the nobility, probably for not having enough qualifications after all. Ivan was said to have died at a cemetery during the funeral service which he was to conduct as a priest. He was very reluctant to conduct that service but was forced to do it by the angry parishioners, and was so overwhelmed by anger that he succumbed to a stroke.
Volodymyr Vernadsky, the future prophetic scientist, showed a growing interest for the history of Ukraine, the land of his ancestors, at the age of thirteen. One of the biographers of Vernadsky writes that it happened when Volodymyr was — with his father — touring Italy. When in Milan, Volodymyr read in a newspaper about a Russian government ukase that forbade the publication of books in Ukrainian in Ukraine. Much amazed and perplexed, he asked his father to explain why such an idiotic ban had been put on Ukrainian publications. His father told the teenager the basic facts about the Ukrainian history. Upon their return to St Petersburg, Volodymyr began reading whatever he could lay his hands on about Ukraine, its culture and history. When he found some books about Ukraine in Polish, he learnt Polish just in order to read them.
Vernadsky graduated from St Petersburg University in 1885 and became curator of the university’s mineralogical collection in 1886. In 1890 he became a lecturer on mineralogy and crystallography at Moscow University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1897. He served as a professor at Moscow University from 1898 to 1911. After the Revolution of 1917 and the Bolshevik coup, he was active in scientific and organizational activities; he founded and directed the biogeochemical laboratory of the Academy of Sciences at Leningrad (St Petersburg). Vernadsky’s initial work was in mineralogy. He was also a pioneer in geochemistry, measuring and studying the distribution and migration of the chemical elements and isotopes in the Earth’s crust. He gathered detailed data on the layers of the crust, described the migration of atoms in such layers, tried to explain the occurrence of chemical elements in those layers, and in general studied the formation of chemical compounds under the influence of geologic processes.
Vernadsky was one of the first scientists to recognize the tremendous potential of radioactivity as a source of thermal energy, and he was also one of the first to postulate the long-term heat buildup from radioactivity as a driving force behind many geochemical processes. His later years were taken up with the study of the contributions that life makes to the Earth. He also studied the effects living things have on the chemistry of the Earth’s crust.
He did his best to avoid being involved in politics of any kind or clearly express his political leanings. The Soviets did find something in his writings that could be used as quotations in support of his allegedly embracing “the communist ideas.” In all likelihood he was just happy to be allowed to go on with his scientific work without much interference, and the Soviets, probably realizing his prominence of a scientist of world stature, did not harass or persecute him as they did with so many other prominent cultural and scientific figures.
Volodymyr Vernadsky died in Moscow on January 6 1945. Shortly before his death, he wrote in his diary: “I’m prepared to leave this life. I have no fear. I’ll just disintegrate into molecules and atoms. They’ll be probably transformed into another form of living matter.”[Prev][Contents][Next]