Vladimir Vernadsky is imperceptibly present in the life of each person. In the evening, bright streetlights drive away the darkness – by means of energy from the nearest nuclear power plant, which might not have come to exist if it hadn’t been for Vladimir Vernadsky. We wear clothes and exploit objects made of modern materials, which wouldn’t be there but for Vladimir Vernadsky’s contribution to chemistry and geology. Today we are increasingly turning to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are based on Vladimir Vernadsky’s doctrine of the noosphere. His heritage enshrouds the entire planet in an invisible web, and myriads of avenues and streets are named after him, but Vladimir Vernadsky himself often remains in the shadows.
Numerous articles and books have been written about the life and scientific path of Vladimir Vernadsky as a scientist and philosopher, but they seem to be elements of a large mosaic – so profound is his personality. So, what was Vladimir Vernadsky like?
The beginning of Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky’s life was no different from that of many Russian intellectuals. He was born on March 12, 1863 in the family of Ivan Vasilyevich Vernadsky, an economist, professor and official for special assignments under the Minister of Internal Affairs, and his wife Anna Petrovna, a music and singing teacher. Vladimir Vernadsky studied at the Kharkiv Classical Gymnasium, then at the First St. Petersburg Classical Gymnasium. He did not shine with excellent grades, probably because the school could not satisfy his craving for natural sciences – at that time the knowledge of the Earth was scarce and fragmentary. Vladimir Vernadsky sought for more, and he quenched his thirst for knowledge by reading and talking with his father, his father’s friends and his first cousin once removed Yevgraf Maximovich Korolenko, a self-educated philosopher, an eccentric professor of economics and a great debater.
At the age of 17, young Vladimir Vernadsky asked his father to present him with “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, and at a time when the fundamental work of Charles Darwin was studied by scientists, not by high school students. At the same time, Vladimir Vernadsky discovered Nature – a recently launched British journal, which today is one of the oldest and most authoritative natural science publications in the world.
It isn’t as if future philosopher, mineralogist and chemist was interested only in natural sciences. Vernadsky’s inquisitive mind was trying to find the key to the mysteries of any science. Vladimir Vernadsky tried his hand at poetry, was keenly interested in music, literature and painting, and his passion for history and social sciences was later reflected in the social activities of the scientist.
After graduating from the gymnasium, young Vladimir Vernadsky enters the Natural Sciences Department of the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of the St. Petersburg Imperial University. That’s where fate brought him together with chemists Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev and Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Butlerov, botanist Andrey Nikolaevich Beketov, geologist and soil scientist Vasily Vasilyevich Dokuchayev, physiologist Ivan Mikhaylovich Sechenov, zoologist Nikolay Petrovich Wagner and many other prominent scientists. It is worth noting that Vladimir Vernadsky was personally or in absentia acquainted with a multitude of gifted people of his time. He became a kind of lens: the thoughts of many people were concentrated in Vladimir Vernadsky and effused in a harmonious flow, refined, woven into a single canvas of scientific knowledge by his active mind.
Under the guidance of Vasily Dokuchayev, Vernadsky participated in soil expeditions, where he completed his first geological route and wrote his first scientific work. In 1885, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, already a PhD, took the position of mineralogical cabinet keeper. Three years later, Vladimir Vernadsky went on a business trip abroad, where he began working in the crystallography laboratory. Then Vernadsky went on a big tour across Europe to get acquainted with mineralogical museums. He visited Austria, Switzerland, France and participated in the International Geological Congress in England in 1888. Here he was admitted to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (today the British Science Association).
One might think that the future philosopher, mineralogist and chemist were only interested in the natural sciences, but this is not so. His inquisitive mind sought to find the key to the secrets of any science. Vladimir Vernadsky tried his hand at poetry, was keenly interested in music, literature and painting, and his passion for history and social sciences was later reflected in the scientist’s social activities.
After the business trip and tour, the scientist was invited to Moscow University and approved for the position of mineralogical cabinet keeper. Vladimir Vernadsky stopped working at Moscow University in 1911 when he and twenty other professors resigned in protest against the violation of the university autonomy. They were followed by privatdocents and other lecturers; one-third of the teaching staff left at once. “The old Moscow University has ceased to exist,” Vladimir Vernadsky summed up.
V. Vernadsky and professors of the Imperial Moscow University, who resigned due to the reactionary policy of L. Kasso, the Minister of Education. 1911.
In January 1915, Vernadsky initiated the creation of a Commission for the Study of Natural Productive Forces of Russia. The purpose of the Commission was to explore, assess and map Russia’s natural resources. No one had done this before, and on account of lack of data on natural resources, a conundrum was unfolding: the country had to buy clay from Germany while being at war with it. That was the beginning of a comprehensive approach to the study of Russia’s natural resources. Already in 1916, 14 expeditions were conducted to meet the needs of the front and the rear.
The contribution of Vladimir Vernadsky to the development of the nuclear project can’t be overestimated. A few years after the discovery of the phenomenon of radioactivity, the Radium Commission was created – by the efforts of Vernadsky. The scientist has always looked to the future, so unsurprisingly he quickly recognized the potential of radioactive materials in the energy sector. However, uranium ores are rare and expensive, thus in his report “The task of the day in the field of radium”, Vernadsky proposed a geological and laboratory research programme aimed at searching for these ores in Russia and mastering the energy of nuclear fission. In 1922, Vladimir Vernadsky established the Radium Institute in Petrograd and headed it until 1939. In 1938, at the Radium Institute, the first cyclotron in Russia began operating; it was created by Vernadsky’s student Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov, the “father” of the Soviet atomic bomb.
V. Vernadsky among the employees of the State Radium Institute. 1922.
The scientific path of Vladimir Vernadsky was long and tortuous. Starting with chemistry and geology, he moved on to the study of radioactivity and chemistry of elements, paving the way for geochemistry and giving impetus to the development of radiochemistry. Gradually, the object of the scientist’s research grew in scale and enlarged until it absorbed both the economy and the social sphere, and eventually embraced the entire planet – so by the 1930s, the doctrine of the noosphere was born, the apogee of Vladimir Vernadsky’s thought. He came to the conclusion that the appearance of humans with scientific thought was a natural stage in the evolution of the biosphere. According to Vladimir Vernadsky, humans transform the Earth in accordance not only with their needs but also with the laws of the biosphere. Scientific creativity and innovation will form the basis of social and state life – so the noosphere will appear. The doctrine of the noosphere suggests that science and philosophy go hand in hand: Vladimir Vernadsky understood that the former loses its human face without the latter. At a time when society was readily divided into classes and eugenics was blooming with exuberant colour, Vladimir Vernadsky said that humanity consists of full-fledged, independent, and thinking individuals. Each personality with its own creative potential makes up the noosphere. That’s why we, people, need to find ourselves, our creativity. Vladimir Vernadsky assigned the role of the driving force that transforms the biosphere into the noosphere to the human mind, which is capable of generating scientific thought and of ensuring the transition by means of new technologies. Long before the widespread discussion of global problems, the scientist warned that scientific developments would not be an absolute boon, and the transition to the noosphere would not be smooth. He emphasized the responsibility of each individual not only for the development of society but also for the preservation of the biosphere. And although the idea of Vladimir Vernadsky about the noosphere did not immediately elicit a response in the minds and hearts of contemporaries, it has become the cornerstone of the concept of sustainable development of society and the blueprint for the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Vladimir Vernadsky never locked himself in an ivory tower. He always paid great attention to social and political issues. As a student, he was a member of the “Priyutinsky Brotherhood” Narodnik Circle. Despite some connections with revolutionary-minded circles (Vladimir Vernadsky was familiar with Aleksandr Ilyich Ulyanov), the scientist himself believed in changes for the better through reforms and personal actions. Vernadsky was the zemstvo councillor of the Morshansky Uyezd of the Tambov Governorate, and in 1891, inspired by the activities of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy and with the support of the “Russian Vedomosti” newspaper, he created a public organization to help the hungry: money was collected by subscription and a network of canteens was organized. By 1892, there were more than a hundred canteens in the Tambov Governorate, where over 25 thousand people were fed. Another assistance was also provided to the population: horses were bought and seeds for sowing were distributed. Vladimir Vernadsky helped to create zemstvo schools, hospitals, and public libraries. He consciously devoted himself to public service, guided by the sense of personal responsibility for the fate of the country, believing that the principles of zemstvo self-government should become the basis for the development of the Russian state life.
In the Priyutinsky Brotherhood, the young scientist met his future wife, Nataliya Yegorovna Staritskaya. At a time when love marriage was an unattainable luxury for most people, Vladimir Vernadsky was lucky to meet a woman whom he loved with all his heart and who became his most reliable friend and colleague. It is a question whether Vladimir Vernadsky would have reached the same heights without the truly invaluable help of his wife. She was exceptionally gifted linguistically: she edited and corrected her husband’s books, translated them into European languages. It was with her help that the scientist learned German and French. It can be said that it was Nataliya who introduced the scientific works of Vladimir Vernadsky to the world and paved his way towards international recognition. The house and children – son George and daughter Nina - were also in her charge. The remarkable fact is that Nataliya not only helped her husband but also was active herself: she was a translator and a member of the Slavic Culture Society, was engaged in educational and charitable activities, and in 1905-1907 was the technical secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Vladimir Vernadsky was a member of the Party’s Central Committee).
Nataliya Staritskaya, the wife of V.I. Vernadsky (1860-1943). 1877.
In the difficult pre-revolutionary years, the Vernadskys actively participated in the zemstvo movement, the creation of the “Liberation” magazine and the “Union of Liberation”, which was formed around the magazine. Vladimir Vernadsky advocated agrarian reform, the abolition of the death penalty, a limited monarchy and judicial protection of human rights. During the October Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Vernadsky headed the Ministry of Public Education of the Provisional Government. The scientist perceived the victory of the Bolsheviks as a tragic defeat of democracy and was forced to flee to Ukraine under threat of arrest. In Ukraine, Vladimir Vernadsky also left his mark: he became one of the founders and the first president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (today the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine). The National Library of Ukraine, created with the participation of the scientist during the Civil War, bears his name.
Vladimir Vernadsky with his wife Nataliya, children George and Nina, and his wife’s brother P. Staritsky. Poltava. 1907.
When the revolution reached Kyiv, the Vernadskys left for the south, to the still White Crimea. There the scientist gave lectures on geochemistry at the new Taurida University (today V.I. Vernadsky Taurida National University), which he later headed. In Crimea, Vladimir Vernadsky fell seriously ill with typhus, and Nataliya nursed her husband for a whole month. While he was ill, a wave of Red Terror swept over Crimea. By the order of Bela Kun, the head of the Crimean Revolutionary Committee, the Vernadskys (without George and Nina, they fled abroad) were sent to Petrograd, where Vladimir Vernadsky was arrested. However, the imprisonment was brief: after the personal intervention of Nikolay Aleksandrovich Semashko, a student of Vladimir Vernadsky, the scientist was released on the following day.
After his release, Vladimir Vernadsky decided to stay in Petrograd. Nataliya did not like her husband’s decision – he condemned himself to a life in constant danger – but she supported him. Vladimir Vernadsky’s colossal scientific achievements and equally colossal scientific potential reliably protected the scientist from repression. Vernadsky was even allowed to go on business trips abroad. He delivered lectures on geochemistry at the Sorbonne in 1921 and worked under the guidance of Marie Skłodowska-Curie at the Radium Institute in Paris in 1924 and 1925. In the 1930s, Vladimir Vernadsky visited the Radium Institute again and met Alfred Lacroix and Irène Joliot-Curie.
It was the first two decades after the revolution that became the most fruitful for Vladimir Vernadsky. During these years he wrote many works, among them “The Biosphere”, “History of Minerals of the Earth’s Crust”, “Essays on Geochemistry” and many others. However, even during the years of repression, including the Academic Case, Vladimir Vernadsky did not hide his head in scientific papers and actively participated in public and political life. The famous scientist was indispensable: he supported the research on radioactivity and biogeochemistry, the search for radioactive materials and other minerals. Vernadsky was the face of Soviet science in the international arena. The Soviet government needed him because at that time no one else could lead research on such a scale. He still had protectors in the upper echelons of government – his former students and colleagues, and Vernadsky took full advantage of that. Vladimir Vernadsky wrote countless letters striving for the release of other scientists, improvement of their prison conditions, and their transfer to other places of imprisonment. Even though Vladimir Vernadsky risked not only himself but also the life and well-being of his wife, she supported him in this no easy feat.
Ye. Fersman, N. Vernadskaya, V. Vernadsky, and A. Fersman. 1941.
The Vernadskys never abandoned others to their fate and always acted according to their conscience and guided by a sense of justice. Vladimir and Nataliya Vernadskys lived together for 56 years in perfect harmony – “soul to soul, thought to thought,” as the scientist himself said. He always recognized Nataliya’s huge contribution to his merits and was immensely grateful to her. Nataliya Vernadskaya passed away in 1943. The great scientist survived his wife by only two years. George and Nina never returned to Russia. George Vernadsky became the premier researcher on Russian history in the USA. Nina Vernadskaya (married Toll) graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University in Prague and migrated to the USA before the war, where she studied psychiatry all her life and published several popular science works in American periodicals. Today there are no direct descendants of Vladimir Vernadsky – in 1999 his family line died out with Nina’s daughter Tatiana being the last member.
Vladimir Vernadsky left an indelible mark in history. He wrote more than five hundred works in various branches of science, stood at the origins of biogeochemistry, mineral prospecting and exploration, and the Soviet nuclear project. Vladimir Vernadsky always boldly faced the future and selflessly worked for the benefit of humanity. The synthesis of his scientific and philosophical research – the doctrine of the noosphere – laid the foundation for the sustainable development concepts which are used by politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs around the world.