The Vernadsky Phenomenon

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by Kirill PETROV, Dr. Sc. (Geogr.), St. Petersburg State University

The name of Academician Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863-1945) and his ideas cut a wide swath already in the late 19th century.

Looking back to the life of the great natural scientist and his heritage, we can now fully comprehend the staggering scope of his contribution and divide the wheat from the tares of calumny.

And this has been done in the book: V. I. VERNADSKY, Pro et Contra, an anthology of literature about him in a hundred years from 1898 to 1998.

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The time that followed the ravages of civil war in Russia in 1918- 1921 and economic disarray witnessed an upsurge of creative thought inspired by a cohort of dedicated intellectuals who, despite the heavy odds - mistrust, persecutions and reprisals at the hands of the new government - took their country to the forward edge of world science and culture as early as the 1930s. This puzzling paradox may be largely explained by high standards of university education in Russia before the October Revolution of 1917. Rigorous selection applied to enrollment - would-be students were admitted strictly on a merit basis. Add to this the high level of instruction-the faculty staffs and undergraduates had a chance to go to the best colleges and universities abroad as visiting researchers. Besides, a network of Russian research centers was set up in other countries. Soviet Russia thus fell heir to a fairly advanced system of college and university education.

Having a good command of foreign languages, Russian college students and graduates could get in touch with the cream of European science. All that contributed to the birth of a string of scientists and culturati among the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries-an elite that, while working for the good of their native country, internalized world culture as well. Vladimir Vernadsky was the brightest luminary in this constellation.

The Vernadsky anthology (edited by the late Academician Alexander Yanshin, St. Petersburg, 2000) has been published by the Russian Christian Humanitarian Institute in the book series Russian Path that has already enlightened us on such eminent Russian thinkers as Pyotr Chaadayev, Nikolai Berdyayev, Vassily Rozanov, Pavel Florensky, among others. The editors of the new anthology have delved into reams and reams of the literature about Vernadsky - what has been written and published in a hundred years between 1898 and 1998 here in Russia and abroad. They have picked out over 150 texts by a hundred different authors, Russian and foreign alike. Most of these works once appeared in periodicals, including those published by Russian emigres, but have never seen print again.

The Vernadsky anthology is in three parts. The first, titled "The Vernadsky Phenomenon", comprises materials on Vernadsky's contribution to world science - articles by Academicians Alexander Fersman, Alexander Yanshin, Boris Sokolov, Dmitry Likhachev and other authorities. The second part - "The Vernadsky Personality" - has reminiscences of his contemporaries as well as excerpts from the diaries and letters penned by the great natural scientist himself. The third and largest part - "The Vernadsky Epoch" - is a collection of publications on the significance of Vernadsky's works for the progress of natural sciences and philosophy.

The anthology is prefaced by an introductory article contributed by its compiler, Alexei Lapo*: "The Vernadsky World: From the Crystal to the Noosphere." And the afterword is written by the late Academician Alexander Yanshin (1911-2000) who, up to his very death, headed the Russian Academy's commission on the scientific heritage of Academician Vernadsky.

There is something to liven up the book - a reprint of a post card dating to the year 1906 with a cartoon depicting Vernadsky (this jolly sketch is attributed to William Carrick, a well-known pencil artist in those days, who used to visit the Vernadsky house).

We are much in need of publications like that. We should know a good deal more about men like Academician Vernadsky - the salt of the earth and emotional ferment vital to progress. And the emotional charge of the Vernadsky anthology is quite obvious: we see a gallery of people who love and who suffer - sages and fools, heroes and villains, champions and sycophants... A Shakes- pearean gallery indeed!

The high level of our science and culture a hundred years ago elicited great interest in Russia abroad. But


* Alexei Lapo - a scientist from St. Petersburg who is actively involved in boosting the Vernadsky ideas in Russia and abroad. His anthology on Vernadsky is quite on a par with the canons of good scientific prose. - Ed.

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then came the long years of a face-off between the two worlds, socialism personified by Russia and capitalism with the West as its mainstay. As a consequence, the West thought it could fend for itself in matters of culture - it felt itself self-sufficient. It's deplorable but the names of some of our outstanding scientists and thinkers are not known among the world scientific community, though their ideas have gained currency. It's like the Periodic Table that is but seldom associated in the West with the name of its creator, Dmitry Mendeleyev. The same is true of Vladimir Vernadsky and his ideas. The Western public could "rediscover" Vernadsky only after the English edition of Alexei Lapo's book Traces of Bygone Biospheres in 1982. Years after, in 1998, came the English translation of Vernadsky's Biosphere.Alexei Lapo, who also took part in preparing this edition, wrote in the preface that "Vernadsky, as a scientist and thinker of the world class, does not need any apology or political amending. Now, at last, he has a chance to speak up in English in the first person."

Vernadsky owes his breadth of vision to the deep interest in literature and the arts. "In our age of hard knowledge", he wrote, "we tend to look down on artistic creation in scientific quest and in scientific literature. We forget that this creation is not only an element that helps in discovering the scientific truth but is also of immense value and significance in itself, regardless of what is achieved by it in scientific problem solving." Vernadsky agrees with Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) who would not accept the Newtonian world outlook, regarded as indisputable; one did not need mathematical methods and numbers in natural studies, he thought. This is how Vernadsky explains such "quixotic" ways: Goethe could see better than many others that "analytic separation of phenomena always leads to an incomplete and erroneous notion, for in actual reality 'nature' is but an orderly whole." Well, these words are not to be understood as the all-out negation of the hard sciences and their role in natural science: as a matter of fact, Vernadsky was a brilliant experimentalist who contributed to significant advances in nature studies; what he meant is that we should strive for a comprehensive, integral picture of the world we live in - a picture infused with spirituality and artistic perception.

Academician Vernadsky chose the lines of the 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev as an epigraph for his famous book Biosphere: "Inviolable order in all, // Perfect concord in nature..." This book first saw print in 1926, that is 75 years ago, and it was a signal event in natural history. However, Vernadsky's ideas about the biosphere gained recognition only many decades after, in the 1960s. Now, with the ever growing ecological awareness, his heritage is topical as never before: for humankind has come to realize that it cannot tackle global economic problems without a knowledge of the laws controlling living organisms.

The biosphere should inevitably develop into a noosphere, that is a sphere where human reason will reign supreme (from the Greek word nous, which means reason, intelligence); hence the source of Vernadsky's social optimism. Science is a potent force capable of accomplishing what philosophy, religion and politics have failed to do, and that is to unite all of humanity. "What we are living through is not a soul-stirring crisis; it is but the greatest turning-point that occurs only once in a millennium; we are witnessing scientific achievements beyond compare for the many generations of our forefathers... Standing before great change and peering into the future, we ought to be happy for our destiny to live in it and take part in the making of this future."

Such is the keynote of the Vernadsky legacy. The great Russian thinker set much store by the scientific ethic, an all-important factor what with the omnipotence of science. And his ideas are echoed by another great mind, Academician Dmitry Likhachev, who has warned: "It is extremely dangerous for the natural sciences to outpace the humanities in their development... It is the humanities and the arts that mold the morals of each and every individual, and all of society at large."

What does the future hold in store for all of us? Will people become happier and better off? And will science cope in making them that way? Back in the 19th century the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky said human nature was essentially contradictory. Free will and human identity chafed at sundry prescriptions, however well-grounded scientifically: "... People will remain people, not piano keys for natural laws to play music on... until in the end one should not wish anything but the calendar." That's what Dostoyevsky said in his Notes from the Underground.

A single-minded affluent society is rather an Utopia. Calling for an all-out fight in the cause of a noosphere is dangerous, and we must be aware of that: for lofty intentions, no matter how good, may tempt someone to isolate malcontents and destroy those who will offer resistance.

Vernadsky's teachings are essentially human-oriented, with a fully harmonized human personality as their ideal. That's the gist of the Vernadsky behest for us to remember.


Опубликовано 10 сентября 2018 года




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