Vernadsky and Biogeochemistry

Vladimir Vernadsky's (1863-1945) enormous if somewhat premature contribution to science is still not fully appreciated in the West (Vernadsky 1998, originally published in Russian 1926; Ghilarov 1995; McMenamin and Mc-Menamin 1994; Bailes 1990; Westbroek 1991). In Russia, his homeland, Vernadsky was officially lionized in Soviet times, although he was far from being a staunch Marxist-Leninist. Ironically, it is now chic to disparage his stature. Vernadsky should be regarded as the father of biogeochemistry, having coined the word in 1926 in his book on the biosphere (Vernadsky 1945). For Vernadsky, the heart of biogeochemistry, the intersection of the biological, geological, and chemical realms, is the cycling of elements through the biosphere. The biosphere is seen as "a definite geological envelope markedly distinguished from all other envelopes of our planet. This is not only because it is inhabited by living matter, which reveals itself as a geological force of immense proportions, completely remaking the biosphere . . . but also because the biosphere is the only envelope of the planet into which energy permeates in a notable way, changing it even more than does living matter" (Vernadsky 1944). We even find the germ ofhomeostatic Gaia: "Living mat ter (as the biosphere itself) is organized in a way that is conducive to the function of the biosphere" (quoted in Ghilarov 1995 from Russian text).

A highly relevant thesis of Vernadsky to the central theme of this book is his statement that "the process of the weathering of rocks is a bio-inert process." He wrote, "It seems to me that this neglect explains the backwardness of the branch of chemical geology concerned with the zone of weathering, as constrasted with our present general level of knowledge. The process is approached as a physico-chemical one. A biogeochemical approach ought to contribute greatly to the solution of the problem" (Vernadsky 1944). Vernadsky defined bio-inert natural bodies as "regular structures consisting simultaneously of inert and living bodies," with a bio-inert process involving the interaction of these bodies.

Vernadsky apparently had a profound influence on the subsequent development of biogeochemistry in the West through a curious connection: his son George was a professor at Yale and a friend of G. E. Hutchinson, an influential force in the post-World War II development of ecology, biogeochemistry, and limnology. Hutchinson edited and introduced Vernadsky's first major publication in English, "Problems of Biogeochemistry II" (Vernadsky 1944) and also arranged publication of his paper in American Scientist in 1945 (Vernadsky 1945). In particular, there is strong resonance between Hutchinson's 1954 paper on the biochemistry of the terrestrial atmosphere, emphasizing biogeochemical interactions, and Vernadsky's concepts (Gri-nevald 1988). The biochemistry of the atmosphere indeed! Hutchinson's terminology anticipates the most provocative metaphors of Lovelock's Gaia.

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