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Vladimir Vernadsky, an eminent Russian naturalist, science historian, public figure and thinker, was born 140 years ago, on March 12, 1863. He is the author of original-and still topical-works on genetic and descriptive mineralogy, crystallography, soil science and hydrogeochemistry. He also worked on the theory of symmetry and on the problem of time. Academician Vernadsky is among the founders of geochemistry and is the father of biogeochemistry studying the global activity of living matter, or a totality of organisms. Yet the pinnacle of his work is his teaching on the biosphere, or what applies to life on earth in all its bearings. Although in the past fifty years or so this subject has been explored in its ecological aspects by and large, Vernadsky took a much broader view which synthesized many of the hard sciences and philosophy.
Narrow specialization in science set in for good during the 20th century. And it was Vladimir Vernadsky who, true to the classical traditions, materialized a synthesis of knowledge, though he contributed novel ideas to science as well.
It would be in place to recall the controversy among physicists concerning the distinction between right and left in the kingdom of elementary particles. Thus one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, Wolfgang Pauli of Austria (Nobel Prize, 1945), said he didn't believe God is left-handed and he was ready to make a bet for a big sum that an experiment would produce a symmetrical result. This opinion was shared by nearly all big-name scientists, in particular one of the founders of quantum electrodynamics Richard Feynman of the United States (Nobel Prize, 1965), even though he opted for the experiment after all. But Vernadsky had foreseen the possibility of right/left difference in the micro-world twenty years before physicists came to grapple with the problem in good earnest. Said he, "Space-time is fundamentally inhomogeneous, and symmetry phenomena in it can be manifest in limited areas only." This was confirmed in 1956 by two Chinese-born physicists in the United States Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang (Nobel Prize, 1957).
Now, how could we explain such astounding perspicacity? The point is that Vernadsky never restricted himself to the narrow confines of one scientific discipline only but sought to comprehend nature as a whole. Hence his ability and courage to think beyond the limits of obvious facts.
Though an expert on the earth sciences, Vernadsky had predicted nonetheless an A- bomb long before the Second World War. And he was the first-way back in 1910 and 1911-to speak up on the awful responsibility of scientists to society.
In anticipation of an "atomic era", Vernadsky founded a Radium Institute in Petrograd in 1922 and then set up commissions within the Academy of Sciences to prospect for radioactive materials and study possible practical uses of the new kind of energy. All that enabled our physicists, decades later, in 1954, to commission the world's first atomic power station (at Obninsk, Kaluga) and react quickly to US A-bomb monopoly.*
* See: Ye. Velikhov, "He Dreamt of a Sun on Earth", Science in Russia, No. 1, 2003.- Ed.
Vernadsky's works on the history and philosophy of science-of natural science mostly-are likewise illuminating and instructive. Only few people know anything about these works. It might be for this reason that the work of Thomas Coon (USA) on the structure of scientific revolutions came as a sensation forty years ago. And yet much earlier, back at the turn of the 20th century, Vernadsky had been as much involved with the same problems (though he spoke not of revolutions but rather of outbursts of scientific creativity and did not take a narrow specialist view of them but considered them in a broader context, above all from the angle of Weltanschauung and partially in their social implications).
True to the orthodox approach to sciences, Th. Coon spoke of the need of establishing significant facts, comparing facts and theory, and devising a proper theory; all that, he maintained, exhausted the field of "normal science". As to Vernadsky, he stressed the significance of empirical generalizations for the cognition of nature. Incidentally, his teaching on the biosphere is one such great empirical generalization.
Yet even well before Vernadsky, the English oceanologist, Corresponding Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, John Murray as well as the French geographer Jean Jacque Reclus, among others, had written about the biosphere, the sphere of life, but they did not go beyond generalities. Vladimir Vernadsky substantiated his teaching on the biosphere while staying in Paris as a visiting researcher (1923 - 1924) at French colleges and lecturing at la Sorbonne on a course in geochemistry. In his books A Study in Geochemistry (1927) and Biosphere ( 1926) Vernadsky showed the global significance of living matter and man.
"Living organisms, from the geo-chemical standpoint," the scientist stressed, "are not a chance factor in the chemical mechanism of the earth crust; they constitute its essential and inalienable part. They are linked inseparably with the inert matter of the crust, with minerals and rocks." Proceeding from these premises and geological data, Vernadsky validated the bold idea of geological perpetuity of life and the constancy of the mass of living matter in the history of the earth (rather, the constancy of the geochemical activity of living organisms). Thus far geologists have not detected rocks that antedated living matter on our planet.
The Austrian geologist Edouard Suess was the first to describe the biosphere as a planetary envelope permeated with life (1875). This concept has entered into scientific use. Yet it was Vernadsky who has explained the planetary and cosmic substance of life.
At first he wrote about the "mechanism of the biosphere", but then he changed this definition to "orderliness", or "good organization". That is, Vernadsky visualized organism rather than a mechanical system: the biosphere could be studied with much success as an organism effecting metabolism and accumulating some of the energy of the sun rays, and endowed with a memory and data accumulation system (earth crust). This approach could have well expanded our conception of the essence and forms of life.
Another remarkable idea advanced by Vernadsky is that of man, the creature of the biosphere, not only as a corporeal but also as a spiritual, intellectual being. "... As part of the biosphere, man can judge about the universe only by comparison with phenomena observed in it." And something else as well: "So far historians and scholars of the humanities in general... have deliberately been ignoring the laws of the biosphere- a terrestrial shell where life can exist only. Man is essentially inseparable from it."
Vladimir Vernadsky is thought to be the author of the teaching on the noosphere (the sphere of reason, intelligence). Indeed, Vernadsky advanced a hypothesis that man remodels nature by relying on his intelligence and scientific wisdom. As to the very term, "noosphere", he borrowed it from his contemporaries, the French philosophers Edouard Leroy and T. de Chardin. But they conceptualized the idea of the noosphere under the impression of Vernadsky's lectures at la Sorbonne and subsequent conversations with him.
To do justice to John Murray, he also pointed to the sphere of reason and intelligence born in man within the biosphere. Man, he said, tried to interpret and explain cosmic phenomena thereby. J. Murray defined that as PSHYCHOSPHERE. T. de Chardin, too, means about the same thing when speaking about the "spirit of the Earth". However, Vernadsky proceeded above all from man's global geological activity, partly in keeping with the ideas of the American scientist Georg Marsh (who, in 1866, set forth his views on the effect of man on changes of physicogeographical conditions), and with the ideas of the German geographical school of the early 19th century (Alexander Humboldt, Friedrich Ratzel) and of other scholars. Vladimir Vernadsky stressed a special role of science: "By scientific thought and the state- organized engineering it directs, by his very life man creates a new biogenic force in the biosphere."
Academician Alexander Fersman, a distinguished mineralogist and geo-chemist, and a pupil of Vernadsky would speak of a technogenic, rather
than a biogenic, force to emphasize the essentially important role of technology in acting upon the natural environment. As a great enthusiast of science, Vernadsky must have overrated its role in the life of man and nature. This came vividly into play in the latter half of the 20th century what with ecological problems looming large- environmental pollution, desert encroachment, exhaustion of mineral and water resources, climate and weather vagaries...
Now we know: technogenesis exerts largely an adverse effect on the biosphere, causing its degeneration and forbidding its transition to a higher level of complexity and orderliness. The biosphere turns into a global domain of technology (or a technosphere) where consumerism, profiteering and drive for power reign supreme. Utter ignorance, too. And scientific thought recedes to the sidelines.
Vernadsky was well aware of man's estrangement from Mother Nature.
"Due to the conventionalities of civilization, this inseparable and vital kinship of humanity with the rest of the living world fades away, and man tends to regard the being of civilized humankind apart from the living world. But these are vain attempts, and they are bound to be dashed as soon as we come to study humankind in its texture with entire Nature." Vernadsky could not think that people would keep looking on nature only as a means of catering to their material wants, showing but little regard for its condition, and using scientific achievements solely for extensive exploitation of its resources.
This great scientist envisioned a noosphere already in the 20th century. But actual reality has frustrated these dreams. A delusion of a man of genius? Hardly. Achieving what he meant by a noosphere has proved a formidable task which cannot be tackled by upgraded technologies.
Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said this: "Nature handed man a weapon-intellectual and moral vim, but he preferred to use this weapon contrariwise as well; therefore, without moral principles man turns into the most wicked and savage creature." Consequently, the path to a noosphere lies through a spiritual rebirth of humankind; what we need is fundamental change within man rather than in his natural environment. The idea of a noosphere has a heuristic potential-that is it helps to discover and learn, it helps us to collate our actual reality with our ideals.
Vladimir Vernadsky, we might say, was a man of the noosphere. He tried to do his utmost for the furtherance and implementation of scientific ideas. Working for the good of his motherland, science and all of humanity, he couldn't care less what kind of government was in power. Back in the days of the Russian
Empire, he organized a Radium Commission under the Academy of Sciences (1910). During the First World War Vernadsky was among the initiators of the Academy's commission for studying Russia's productive forces and became head of this commission. These two organizations performed well under Soviet government too. During the Civil War of 1918 - 1920, he founded the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and became its first head. In later years he organized a number of commissions, laboratories and research centers under the Academy's auspices.
Vladimir Vernadsky was a patriot of Russia and of the Soviet Union, though his attitude to the Marxist-Leninist philosophy foisted on this country in 1917 was ambivalent to say the least. That's why his philosophical views were subjected to harsh criticism every now and then. But he, Vernadsky, was quite outspoken. "I am a philosophical skeptic. This means I think that not one philosophical system can attain to the universal binding nature of science (which it achieves only in some definite areas)." "As a philosophical skeptic I can discard without prejudice and with much use for my scientific work all the philosophical systems now alive." These words were uttered in 1932.
But did he belittle the significance of philosophy? No. "Philosophical thought is playing an immense and often fruitful part in creating scientific hypotheses and theories." The philosophical conceptualization of the notion of the biosphere, he hoped, would help overcome the mechanistic outlook based on the hard sciences. It was wrong to apply this mechanistic yardstick to the universe as something out of keeping with actual reality. Scientists, he said, should be awake to the living fabric of nature in its universal entirety.
Vernadsky was overoptimistic here. The models of a dead universe born in a "big bang" (the idea based on nuclear physics and quantum mechanics) and of a dead earth in the light of the plate tectonics theory of geophysics are still around. Such models leave but little room for life and intelligence as random and insignificant phenomena. Vernadsky projected his thought far beyond the earthly confines, into the possibility of a biosphere of the universe.
The focus on material values at the expense of spirituality, on the technosphere, is a dead end for modern civilization. It is fraught with the degradation of human life, culture and personality. This is what the Alsatian philosopher and theologian Albert Schweitzer (Nobel Prize, 1952) cautioned against. Homo sapiens should live up to his intelligence not only in name but also in his loyalty to the ideals of the noosphere - justice, perfection and reason. Vladimir Vernadsky embodied such human perfection in his lifework. Making do with little in the material sense, he was avid where his spiritual and intellectual needs were concerned. An essential condition for our biosphere and for humankind worthy of it.
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