Vladimir Vernadsky

Vladimir Vernadsky nsIn hmolscience, Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) (CR:38) was a Russian geochemical mineralogist noted, in animate thermodynamics, for his 1926 living matter biosphere theory, wherein he attempts to surmount the life / non-life issue, thermodynamically, by arguing that certain portions of the periodic table go into living matter, and that there is some type of unbridgeable gap between living matter and non-living matter, or something along these lines, but one that leads to insurmountable difficulties on theory, in modern retrospect.

In circa early 1920s, Vernadsky penned three articles on the topic of living matter: “Living Matter”, “The Structure of Living Matter”, and “Living Matter in Geochemical History of the Element’s System”; only one of which has since been published. [8]

In 1926, Vernadsky published The Biosphere, in which, building on the 1875 theory of “biosphere” (region of life) by Austrian geologist Eduard Suess, he extolls on a periodic table peculiar thermodynamic-based theory of earth surface growth fed by solar energy is outlined, inclusive of a green fire theory, blended with element discussion and free energy theory. The following excerpt from The Biosphere exemplifies a glimpse into Vernadsky’s mind: [1]

“The diffusion of life is a sign of internal energy – of the chemical work life performs – and is analogous to the diffusion of a gas. It is caused, not by gravity, but by the separate energetic movements of its component particles.”

Here we see an excellent view of a biological system as being comprised of many multi-element structured biological entities (bacteria, organisms, animals, etc.), analogous to the atoms of a body of gas, acting on each other energetically, in a way that is said to characterize the internal energy of the system.

Living matter
Vernadsky is very peculiar in his delineation of the matter of the biosphere into two types: (a) living matter and (b) kosnoe matter or inert matter. He states:

“Living organisms have never been produced by inert matter. In its life, its death, its decomposition an organism circulates it atoms through the biosphere over and over again but living matter is always generated from life itself.”

The Russian word ‘kosnoe’ is the antonym of living, and usually translated as ‘inert’. All in all, Vernadsky seems to adhere to the unbridgeable gap model of life / non-life issue. He states: [1]

“Living matter gives the biosphere an extraordinary character, unique in the universe. Two distinct types of matter, inert and living, though separated by the impassable gulf of their geological history, exert a reciprocal action upon one another.”

He even postulated that in the future that it will be an established axiom of science that living matter is somehow irreducible to the elements:

“It has never been doubted that these different types of biospheric matter belong to separate categories of phenomena, and cannot be reduced to one. This apparently-permanent difference between living and inert matter can be considered an axiom which may, at some time, be fully established.”

As of 2009, and the defunct theory of life, however, we now know that Vernadsky was incorrect in this postulate. In any event, Vernadsky goes on to cite what he calls the known facts, on which he bases his theory, firstly he states that (a) abiogenesis has never occurred and (b) that azioc periods (geological periods devoid of life) have never been observed. On this argument, he goes on to state that conditions favorable for the existence of living matter have always been present.
Vladimir Vernadsky tombstone ns
Vernadsky's tombstone (see also: thermodynamic tombstones) in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow. [9]

Origin of life
Vernadsky is very peculiar on the question of the origin of life. In his preface to the Russian edition, he states:

“Two preconceived ideas have infiltrated geology from roots foreign to the empirical principles of science. The first is the assumption of the existence of a beginning of life—the genesis or biopoesis at a certain stage in the geological past. Considered a logical necessity, this has penetrated science in the form of religious and philosophical speculation.”

As the editors of the 1998 English edition note, the emphasis is his and state that it is testimony to his allegiance to the principle of actualism and substantive uniformitaianism. All-in-all, the theory of the origin of life seems to be a dismissed theory by Vernadsky, but he doesn’t seem to speculate much as to what the alternative is in his view. Later into The Biosphere, he clarifies:

“The structures of living organisms are analogous to those of inert matter, only more complex. Due to changes that living organisms effect on the chemical processes of the biosphere, however, living structures must not be considered simply as agglomerations of inert stuff. There energetic character, as manifested in multiplication, cannot be compared geochemically with the static chemistry of the molecular structures of which inert (and once­-living) matter are composed.”

In other words, it seems he is making an attempt to differentiate living matter with non-living matter by saying that life is matter that is (a) non-inert, (b) multiplies or reproduces, and (c) has a certain type of ‘energetic character’. This, however, is only a patch answer to the question, and he essentially leaves the answer to the question only glossed over.

Free energy
A notable usage of Vernadsky's theory is his usage of of a mixture of sunlight radiation, free energy, and descriptions of biological work being done. He states, for instance: [1]

“The radiations that pour upon the earth cause the biosphere to take on properties unknown to lifeless planetary surfaces, and thus transform the face of the earth. Activated by radiation, the matter of the biosphere collects and redistributes solar energy, and converts it ultimately into free energy capable of doing work on earth.”

This may be a Russian-to-English translation issue, in the term free energy, but interesting nonetheless? in another instance, he states:

“Living matter creates new chemical compounds by photosynthesis, and extends the biosphere at incredible speed as a thick layer of new molecular systems. These compounds are rich in free energy in the thermodynamic field of the biosphere. Many of these compounds, however, are unstable, and are continuously converted to more stable forms.”

As he does not cite anyone for this argument, it is difficult to get a glimpse of his inside view of free energy in this statement. In regards to plants, photosynthesis, and free energy he states: [1]

“Animals and fungi accumulate nitrogen-rich substances which, as centers of chemical free energy, become even more powerful agents of change. Their energy is also released through decomposition when, after death, they leave the thermodynamic field in which they were stable, and enter the thermodynamic field of the biosphere. Living matter as a whole—the totality of living organisms—is therefore a unique system, which accumulates chemical free energy in the biosphere by the transformation of solar radiation.”

Here, we see that he has a blurry picture of free energy, a sort of food chain picture of free energy, so to speak.

Vernadsky was one of the first to argue that living matter has a sort of horizontal pressure acting out over the surface of the earth, in a manner analogous to a gas, which can be felt and measured. In The Biosphere, he first makes mention of this:

“Living matter—organisms taken as a whole—is spread over the entire surface of the earth in a manner analogous to a gas; it produces a specific pressure in the surrounding environment, either by avoiding obstacles on its upward path, or overcoming them.”

The editors of the 1998 edition comment that here Vernadsky introduces his concept of the ‘pressure of life’, which he elaborates on succinctly in 1939 as: “the spreading of life in the biosphere goes on by way of reproduction which exercises a pressure on the surrounding medium and controls the biogenic migration of atoms. It is absent in inert substance. The reproduction creates in the biosphere an accumulation of free energy, which may be called biogeochemical energy. It can be measured.” Further on, he states:

“The careful observer can witness this movement of life, and even sense its pressure. In the impact of a forest on steppe, or in a mass of lichens moving up from the tundra to stifle a forest, we see the actual movement of solar energy being transformed into the chemical energy of our planet.”

In latter commentary, he argues interestingly that energy of the sun is what determines the pressure of life and hence the pressure felt in civilized life: [1]

“Cosmic energy determines the pressure of life, which can be regarded as the transmission of solar energy to the earth’s surface. This pressure arises from multiplication, and continually makes itself felt in civilized life. When man removes green vegetation from a region of the earth, he changes the appearance of virgin nature, and must resist the pressure of life, expending energy and performing work equivalent to this pressure.”

Here he is speaking, essentially, of pressure volume work. He continues that if, at any point, man stops his defense against green vegetation, his works are swallowed up at once by a mass of organisms that will reposes, whenever and wherever possible, any surface man has taken from them. This argument, to note, is similar to discussions on boundary expansion, particularly as documented in territory change, e.g. as in rise and fall of civilizations or human thermodynamic instruments theories.

Speed of transmission of life
Vernadsky gives a formula he defines as the ‘speed of transmission of life’, loosely modeled on how fast a single bacterium can reproduce itself and cover the globe, as follows: [1]

 N_n = 2^{nD} \,

where Nn is the number of individuals formed in n days and D is the ratio of progression or growth rate, characteristic for each species, loosely quantified as the number of generations formed per unit time. What is interesting is that Vernadsky states that speed of transmission is subject to the law of inertia, is hindered by external forces, slows down at low temperatures, and weakens or ceases in the absence of food, gas, breath, or space for the newly born. In other words, he is saying that reproduction is a function of external forces, system temperature, system volume, the medium of the system, and substrate composition.

Curiously, at one point, Vernadsky seems to be quoting Gibbs' Equilibrium verbatim: [1]

“Any system reaches a stable equilibrium when its free energy is reduced to a minimum under the given conditions; that is, when all work possible in these conditions is being produced. All processes, of both the biosphere and the crust, are determined by conditions of equilibrium in the mechanical system of which they are a part.”

What Vernadsky seems to insert into the standard Gibbsian logic is the notion that equilibrium equals ‘stable’, which contrasts to the standard view that equilibrium equals death or the absence of potential further spontaneous movement or natural chemical reaction. To explain, Vernadsky comments:

“When solar radiation has produced the maximum work, and created the greatest possible mass of green organisms, this system has reached a stable equilibrium.”

This view, however, seems to be an incorrect extrapolation of the standard chemical thermodynamics view.

Vernadsky, supposedly, is quite explicit in his writings on challenging the "randomness" component of materialistic Darwinism. In contrast, he states: [1]

“Creatures on earth are the fruit of extended, complex processes, and are an essential part of a harmonious cosmic mechanism, in which it is known that fixed laws apply and chance does not exist.”

Vernadsky defines or alludes to the idea that the entities of the biosphere are what he calls ‘transformers’. He states: [1]

“The biosphere may be regarded as a region of transformers that convert cosmic radiations into active energy in electrical, chemical, mechanical, thermal, and other forms.”

This seems to be a Gibbs-based view.

As to his studies and learning in thermodynamics, Vernadsky seems to have been indoctrinated on the subject via his crystallography studies, at some point coming across the chemical thermodynamics works of American engineer Willard Gibbs. In his discussion of Gibbs’ equilibria, in relation to terrestrial equilibria, for instance, Vernadsky states that “in crystallization, we encounter vectorial energy and internal energy in the formation of crystal twins [and] surface energy plays a role in all crystallization processes”; thus indicating a detailed corpus of knowledge on the subject of crystallization thermodynamics. [4]

Beyond this, Vernadsky utilizes some rather detailed thermodynamic terminologies, such internal energy, free energy, transformations of energy, or re-establishment of equilibrium, etc., the latter being a very intricate concept originating in the 1824 postulate of re-establishment of equilibrium in the caloric (a pre-entropy related concept) by French physicist Sadi Carnot; even coining new terms such as “thermodynamic field” and “thermodynamic envelopes”. [5] On the issue of equilibrium reestablishments, Vernadsky states: [1]

“The speed at which equilibrium is reestablished is a function of the transmission of geochemical energy.”

The thermodynamicist that Vernadsky references to substantiate his work is the chemical thermodynamics of American engineer Willard Gibbs. Vernadsky declares that: [1]

“All of the empirically-recognized geospheres can be distinguished by the variables (temperature, pressure, physical state, and chemical composition) of Gibbs’ equilibria.”

Thermodynamic envelopes
On the basis of Gibbs 1876 treatise “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances”, Vernadsky conceives of six types of what he calls “thermodynamic envelopes” to be quantifiable in the volume of the earth, viewing the earth's crust as a structure of thermodynamic envelopes, which can be “determined by values of temperature and pressure; envelopes of states of matter, characterized by material phases (solid, liquid, etc.); and chemical envelops, distinguished by chemical composition.” He says that this an empirical generalization, useful as a basis for further discussion. On this crude sort of logic, Vernadsky then suppositions his views on the thermodynamics of the biosphere: [5]

“The envelope proposed by Suess, the biosphere, is left out of this scheme. Its reaction are subject to the laws of equilibrium [Gibbs, 1876], but are distinguished by a new property, an independent variable which Gibbs failed to take into account.”

Here, aside from note regarding what Gibbs failed to take into account, we see a very robust and accurate quote, in the modern sense. What Vernadsky is essentially telling us is that all of the reactions within the volume of the biosphere (chemical reaction, biochemical reactions, human chemical reactions, etc.) are subject to the quantification and regulations of the combined law of thermodynamics.

The first thermodynamic envelope or layer, in Vernadsky’s scheme, is the “upper envelop” corresponding to the region of atmosphere-space starting at an altitude of 9-miles going upward into space, past the Karman line weightlessness demarcation (62 miles), to a vertical height of 373-miles. This is the outer thermodynamic envelope. The second thermodynamic envelope (layer) is the “surface envelope”, extending from the surface of the earth to an altitude of 9-miles. Vernadsky’s description of the third and fourth layers is a bit vague. He states that “it is impossible to indicate the precise line of demarcation between envelopes” noting that this is due to our lack of knowledge regarding the boundary zones, but comments that this understanding will improve as science progresses. The fifth envelope Vernadsky assigns to the region of magma (molten rock) inside of the earth, beginning at a level of 22-miles below the earth (according to current data); and postulates the existence of a sixth thermodynamic envelope, or rather core sphere, found inside of the fifth envelope. On this model, he states that “the entire biosphere lies between these layers [one and five]”, i.e. in layers two-four, and comments further that “matter confined to the first and sixth envelopes does not enter into the biosphere or has not been observed in it.”

Vernadsky's work stimulated or influenced the work and discussions between Edouard Le Roy and Pierre Teilhard, the former of which first wrote on the noosphere concept in 1927.

In 1881, Vernadsky began to study the natural sciences in the physics and mathematics department of Saint Petersburg University, studying under the likes of Russians chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev (formulator of the periodic table) and geographer Vasili Dokuchaev (founder of pedology), graduating in 1885. [2]

In 1886, he became curator of St Petersburg University's mineralogical collection. (Ѻ) It was probably at this point wherein he began to grapple with the Linnaean tripartite: mineral (or mineral life), vegetable life, animal life divide, then-dominate, in respect to the "sphere of life" on earth.

In the following three years, Vernadsky mediated on the issue of how the laws of operation of the chemical reactions of the elements of the composition of the earth actuated in developmental changes in the earth, in its evolution, in accordance with the general laws of celestial mechanics. [3] In 1888, Vernadsky embarked on a two-year scholarship in Western Europe, studying under German mineralogist Paul Groth, noted for his books on the physical chemistry of crystallography. In 1989, Vernadsky studied with Henry Le Chatelier. In 1891, Vernadsky completed his MS dissertation: “On the Sillimanite Group and on the Role of the Alumina in the Silicates” and thereafter began his twenty-year professorship in mineralogy and crystallography at Moscow University; completing his PhD there in 1897.

Difficulties on theory

The following are noted quotes:

“Our model of the cosmos always must have a thermodynamic component.”
— Vladimir Vernadsky (1926), The Biosphere (pg. 102)

“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.”
— Vladimir Vernadsky (1945), “Diary Note” (Ѻ), written shortly before his dereaction (death) on Jan 6

1. Vernadsky, Vladimir I. (1926). The Biosphere (free energy quote, pg. 44; chance quote, pg. 44; transformers, pg. 47; nitrogen and free energy, pg. 58; speed of transmission, pgs. 65-66; equilibrium, pg. 75; part one: The Biosphere in the Cosmos, pgs. 43-90; part two: The Domain of Life, pgs. 91-150; living matter, pg. 53-56; keyword: “internal energy”, pg. 60; J.W. Gibbs, pg. 97; sense its pressure”, pgs. 59-62, 76). Copernicus.
2. Grinevald, Jacques. (1997). “Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945): A Biographical Chronology” in The Biosphere: Complete Annotated Edition (pgs. 151-58) by Vladimir Vernadski, Mark A. McMenamin, and David Langmuir, 1998. Copernicus.
3. (a) Quote: "To collect facts for their own sake, as many now gather facts, without a program, without a question to answer or a purpose is not interesting. However, there is a task which someday those chemical reactions which took place at various points on earth; these reactions take place according to laws which are known to us, but which, we are allowed to think, are closely tied to general changes which the earth has undergone by the earth with the general laws of celestial mechanics. I believe there is hidden here still more to discover when one considers the complexity of chemical elements and the regularity of their occurrence in groups..."
(b) Source: Letter from Vernadsky to his wife Natasha Vernadsky on 20 June 1888 from Switzerland.
5. ibid, Vernadsky (1926). Terms: “thermodynamic field” (pgs. 50-51, 58, 81-85, 97-99, 145, 150); “thermodynamic envelopes” (pgs. 97, 100-02, 119).
7. Samson, Paul R. and Pitt, David. (1999). The Biosphere and the Noosphere: Global Environment, Society, and Change (pg. 51). Psychology Press.
8. Vernadsky, Vladimir I. (1978). Zhivo Veshchestvo (Living Matter). Moscow: Nauka.
9. (a) Vernadsky grave (German → English) – Wikipedia.
(b) Vernadsky grave (photo).

Further reading
● Vernadsky, Vladimir. (1945). “The Biosphere and the Noosphere”, American Scientist, 33(1): 1-12; republished in Main Currents in Modern Thought (pgs. 49-53), 1946, April.

External links
Vladimir Vernadsky – Wikipedia.
Eduard Suess – Wikipedia.

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