Childhood & Early Life
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky was born to parents, Anna and Ivan Vernadsky, of Ukrainian Cossacks ancestry in the Saint Petersburg city of Russia, on March 12, 1863. His father was a teacher of political economy at the University of Moscow, before the family shifted from Kiev to Saint Petersburg; his mother belonged to the lower Russian nobility.
Vladimir received his early education from Ukraine but after returning to Russia he studied at the ‘Saint Petersburg Grammar School’. He pursued higher education from ‘St. Petersburg University’ and was awarded a degree by the ‘Department of Natural, Physical and Mathematical Faculty’ in 1885.
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Always interested in natural sciences he decided to pursue a specialization in mineralogy under the renowned Vasily Vasili'evich Dokuchaev who was a pioneer in the field of soil science.
While working on his doctoral dissertation, Vernadsky was introduced to crystallography. He initially wanted to work with crystallographer Arcangelo Scacchi, but the latter’s fragile mental condition compelled him to move to Germany, where he worked on his thesis under the guidance of mineralogist Paul Groth, who was studying the physical properties of crystals.
It was in Germany that he met mathematician Leonhard Sohncke who was himself conducting research on crystallization. Having worked with Sohncke and Groth, Vladimir successfully completed his doctorate.
After completion of his doctoral studies, Vernadsky embarked on his professional career as a research assistant in a mineralogy laboratory. Studying aluminosilicates he chronicled their structure and chemical composition.
He then studied the distribution and concentration of isotopes of different elements in different layers of the Earth’s crust. He collected detailed data and was involved in studies of how various geological forces affect formation of compounds in the Earth crust.
Ivanovich then studied radioactivity and explored its usefulness as a source of thermal energy. His studies in this regard were published as ‘Paragenesis of Chemical Elements in the Earth’s Crust’ which eventually formed the basis of geochemistry.
He then delved into studies that used radioactivity to assess the age and evolution of chemical elements. Ivanovich believed that radioactive substances can not only serve as source of energy but they are even capable of creating new elements. Based on these lines of thoughts the first ‘Radium Commission’ was formed by him in 1909.
He then charted the areas from where samples of radioactive rocks can be procured in abundance. His efforts were successful when the ‘Saint Petersburg University’ started a geochemical laboratory in the year 1910.
He propounded the propounded the concept of ‘noosphere’, which is the sphere of human cognition. According to his theory, the evolution of earth occurs in three stages; the geosphere undergoes modification when biosphere comes into existence and similarly the biosphere is modified when the cognitive ability of living beings develops. All the three spheres are interdependent and are necessary for evolution.
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Despite criticism from the contemporaries in the West, he remained undeterred and embarked on a study that showed that the existence of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is a by-product of the various biological processes undergoing in the biosphere.
His research, on how evolution of living beings plays an important role in the various geological processes, earned him the credit of being a pioneer environmental scientist.
Vladimir was then nominated as an academician in the ‘Saint Petersburg Academy of Science’ in 1912. Two years later he was appointed the head of ‘Museum of mineralogy and Geology’ and in this capacity he contributed to the progress of metal mining industry of the country.
Vladimir then established the ‘Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ and was named its President in 1918. The eminent geologist also contributed to the Ukrainian State by establishing the ‘National Laboratory’.
Accepting a position of professor of mineralogy at the ‘University of Simferopol’ he left Kiev. Eventually he was promoted as head of the university and stayed there till 1921, when political tension between the nations of Russia and Ukraine led to his dismissal.
Between the years 1924-27, two of his most significant publications ‘Geochemistry’ and ‘The Biosphere’, were released. Two other compendiums ‘Living Matter in Biosphere’ and ‘Human Autotrophy’ were published in collaboration with eminent French chemist Marie Curie.
With the advent of nuclear weapons, in 1930s and 1940s, Vladimir was instrumental in voicing his opinions against their exploitation and was a member of the advisory board to the ‘Soviet atomic bomb project’.
In addition, he also surveyed viable sources of uranium and conducted experiments on studies related to nuclear fission in the ‘Radium Institute’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Not much is known about the personal life of Vladimir except that he was married to Natalya. The couple had two children, a son George Vernadsky and daughter Anna Vernadskaya.
The eminent scientist breathed his last on January 6, 1945 in Moscow.
Several educational institutes in Ukraine and Moscow have honoured this ingenious scientist; the ‘Tavrida National University’ has named an avenue in their campus after Vladimir and he is also the eponym of a street in Moscow.