Vladimir Vernadsky


Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky is a renowned Russian crystallographer, mineralogist, geochemist and geologist. He is best known today for his research on the noosphere and the way it affects the biosphere. He was also responsible for laying out the foundation for the study of geochemistry.

Early Life and Education

Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky was born on March 12, 1863 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Coming from a line of Ukrainian Cossacks, his father was a professor in Kiev at the Moscow University, teaching political economy before deciding to move to Saint Petersburg. He was also the editor of the journal entitled “Economic Index”. His mother, on the other hand, was a noblewoman and the daughter of a general and was born and raised in Russia. His childhood was spent in Ukraine and he studied in Kharkov for a brief period of time. When they moved to Saint Petersburg, he continued his studies at the Saint Petersburg Grammar School. This is where he started developing an interest in science, specifically in natural sciences.

Vernadksy acknowledged being both a Ukrainian and a Russian and even learned a little of the Ukrainian language despite having lived longer in Russia. He did not believe in the independence that Ukraine had however, and remained loyal to the Russian state.

In 1885, Vernadsky earned his degree from Saint Petersburg University’s Department of Natural, Physical and Mathematical Faculty. He chose to specialize in mineralogy because he found great potential for more discoveries in this field. He trained under the famous V.V. Dokuchaev, who was known as the founder of soil science.

He pondered on the topic he was going to pursue for his doctorate study for some time. While he was doing this, he travelled to Naples and studied under Scacchi, a crystallographer. Scacchi’s senility hindered Vernadsky from gaining valuable knowledge, so he decided to go to Germany instead to train under Paul Groth. Groth had developed a piece of equipment that helped analyze the thermal, optical, electrical and magnetic properties of crystals and Vernadsky enjoyed learning using modern machinery. He was also able to use the physics lab of Professor Zonke, another expert who was working on crystallization. He defended his Doctorate study in 1885 and became a fellow in research at the mineralogy laboratory.

Notable Contributions

Vladimir Vernadsky presented his report on the “Paragenesis of Chemical Elements in the Earth’s Crust” in front of the 12th Congress of Medics and Natural Scientists. This study laid the foundation for what was later known as geochemistry. He pushed researchers to try using radioactive phenomenon in studying the history of chemical elements and in seeing the genetic relationships between these elements.

In 1909, Vernadsky established the Radium Commission. This was caused by his theory that radioactive substances are, in fact, important sources of energy. This means that they can also be used in creating a new set of chemical elements. He started collecting rock samples and mapped where deposits of radioactive substances can be found in great detail. After a year, the first geochemical laboratory was opened in Saint Petesrburg.

Vernadsky was the first person to make the concept of the noosphere more familiar. He also contributed to the idea of the biosphere as it is known today although it was Eduard Suess, an Austrian geologist whom Verdansky got the chance of meeting in 1911, who coined the term.

Basically, Vernadsky reasons that there is a certain succession by which the earth develops. Geosphere or inanimate matter comes first, followed by the biosphere or biological life. Then comes noosphere which comprises human consciousness and mental activity. Each of these relate to each other, with the emergence of biological life transforming the geosphere and the emergence of human consciousness transforming biological life. Both biological life and human cognition are seen as having a large impact on the evolution of the earth, a concept that is somehow parallel to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But as with any discovery of the same nature, gaining acceptance for his concept was hard to achieve, especially in the West.

Other Contributions and Achievements

Vernadsky was among the first scientists who realized that the presence of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide is a direct product of biological processes. He also published some of his research in the 1920’s, stating that living organisms also have a big impact on how the planet evolves. This made him one of the pioneers that shaped environmental sciences.

In 1912, he was elected as an ordinary academician in the Saint Petersburg Academy of Science. In 1914, he headed the Museum of Mineralogy and Geology. He was among those who coordinated in developing the metal mining industry. In 1917, he started visualizing a new branch of science called biogeochemistry. He envisioned this branch of science to deal with living matter as an integral part of the biosphere.

Vernadsky founded the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 1918 and became its first president. He also founded the National Library of the Ukrainian State and contributed greatly by sharing his knowledge to the Tavrida University in Crimea. Because of his great contribution, a main avenue in Tavrida National University was named after him. An avenue in Moscow also bears his name.

He moved to Simpheropol upon leaving Kiev and there worked as a mineralogy professor. He also became the head of Simperopol University until his dismissal in 1921 because of the unstable political situation.

Among Vernadsky’s notable published works is Geochemistry which was published in 1924 and released in Russia in 1927 as Essays on Geochemistry. He also worked with Marie Curie and published two of their works together, the Living Matter in Biosphere and Human Autotrophy.

Vladimir Vernadsky was one of the advisers for the Soviet atomic bomb project. He was among those who fought hard to make their voices heard, discussing how atomic energy can be exploited and how further research should be done about nuclear fission at his Radium Institute. However, Vernadsky died on January 6, 1945 even before his proposals for further research projects were pursued.