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Homage to Vladimir Vernadsky

 

Not as well known in the west as he should be, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945) was a Russian mineralogist and geochemist who developed a holistic science of the universe. Although he did not originate the term, Vernadsky popularized the concept of the biosphere as “"an envelope of life ... (which is) limited to a determined zone at the surface of the lithosphere"” in his 1926 book, The Biosphere. Toward the end of his life, he postulated a third sphere of existence, the Noosphere, which would dominate the third stage in the earth's development. It was a “"thinking sphere"” comprising the products of human thought.

“"In our century the biosphere has acquired an entirely new meaning; it is being revealed as a planetary phenomenon of cosmic character,"” Vernadsky wrote. “"In the twentieth century, man, for the first time in the history of earth, knew and embraced the whole biosphere, completed the geographic map of the planet earth, and colonized its whole surface. Mankind became a single totality in the life on earth... The noosphere is the last of many stages in the evolution of the biosphere in geological history."”

William McGaughey, author of History of the Triple Existence, had not heard of Vladimir Vernadsky before he prepared to attend the Globalistics-2013 at Lomonosov Moscow State University in October, 2013. This UNESCO-sponsored conference took place on the 150th anniversary of Vernadsky's birth in St. Petersburg, Russia. That Vernadsky should have originated the three-phase cosmology presented in McGaughey's historical work was a pleasant surprise.

Vladimir Vernadsky was a scientist who specialized in the study of crystals. He published more than 400 works during his life time. From his study of minerals, Vernadsky went on to study meteorites, cosmic dust, and the migration of microbes in ecosystems. Some regard him as the father of ecology and the earth sciences. Vernadsky, founder of the Ukranian Academy of Sciences, has received many honors in Russia and the Ukraine including having a Moscow subway station, a street in Kiev, and a research station in Antarctica named after him. But he remains largely unknown in the west.

Apart from his scientific discoveries, Vladimir Vernadsky was remarkable in that he chose to remain in the Soviet Union during the oppressive Stalin era despite many opportunities to emigrate to western Europe. This, he believed, was his civic duty. Despite the perils facing high-profile intellectuals, Vernadsky continued to teach and do research work without interference from the state. In 1943, he was awarded the Stalin prize in science and engineering. However, it was not until after February 1956, when Nikita Khruschchev denounced the Stalinist regime, that Vernadsky became widely acclaimed in his own country.

From my perspective, Vernadsky's legacy lies not only in his remarkably courageous and productive life but also in providing a certain model of personality and outlook that seems to have been lost. Vernadsky died in January 1945, when World War II was coming to an end. Think of the great scientists and humanitarians who lived then. Besides Vernadsky, there were Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, and Arnold Toynbee, among others. These were men of broad vision, who promoted peace and brotherhood among all peoples. It is this type of person who again deserves to be honored. Intellectuals as role models have fallen on hard times.

Some have compared Vernadsky with Einstein. The two men may have met in 1927 when Vernadsky participated in a scientific conference in Berlin that Einstein also attended. Both contributed significantly to humanity's view of the cosmos. Einstein was a physicist; Vernadsky was a geochemist. Although neither was religious in a sectarian sense, both were emotionally attached to a view of the universe as a creation of intelligent harmony.

Vernadsky is known for his scientific discoveries relating to the biosphere and the noosphere. An Austrian geologist, Eduard Suess, coined the term “"biosphere"” in an 1875 book on the Alps. However, it was Vernadsky who methodically studied and analyzed it as a zone on earth and measured the energy flows. Again, a French mathematician and philosopher, Edouard LeRoy, coined the term “"noosphere"” during lectures given at the College of France in 1927; and it was the Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who popularized this concept in the west. Both, however, had attended lectures on this subject given by Vernadsky at the Sorbonne in 1922 and 1923. Vernadsky was the principal architect of a unified cosmic view bringing life and human consciousness into the geophysical framework of humanity's habitat, earth.

Vernadsky’s ideas are worth studying in our own day. Those ideas were stubbornly scientific as opposed to anthropocentric. Yet, Vernadsky's vision, like the photographs of earth taken from the moon, had the effect of making people on earth aware of how fragile and isolated this planet was; it made them want to preserve their habitat. And so, from a view of cosmic existence may come a desire to safeguard humanity in its habitat. It may engender a desire for human survival in a place of abundant life forms. Amid the noisy political and religious rivalries that would pull us in one direction or another, a group of people with a strong moral grounding may then keep their attention focused on the wider view of reality, whether in big history or in scientific pursuits following Vernadsky, and from this awareness develop an ethic with the potential to save us all.

Along those lines, Vaclav Smil, a Czech-Canadian scientist, wrote in 2002: "Looking far ahead, Vernadsky considered the emergence of the noosphere as a critical evolutionary step needed for preserving and reconstructing the biosphere in the interest of humanity as a single entity... We have already altered the biosphere to such an extent that the only rational way out is to understand as good as possible its intricate functions - and then to make sure that the future changes we inflict on the global environment will remain within tolerable limits. Obviously, the collective role of human consciousness will be essential if this unprecedented process of planetary management is to succeed.”

 

Note: This discussion is drawn largely from materials in Irina Trubetskova's internet article, “"Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky and his Revolutionary Theory of the Biosphere and the Noosphere".”

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