Mercè Piqueras on Vladimir Vernadsky and biospheres

SeaWiFS Global Biosphere (September 1997 - August 1998)

SeaWiFS Global Biosphere (September 1997 - August 1998)
Image credit: The SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.

The concept of a biosphere comes from putting together data furnished by several disciplines such as biology, geology, chemistry and biochemistry, which link living matter and the matter of the upper layers of the planet. The term biosphere, which has been usually attributed to Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863–1945), seems to have been coined by Eduard Suess (1831–1914). However, when Suess first used it, in his book Die Entstehung der Alpen (1875), he only intended to make a distinction between the lithospere—which is the upper layer of the Earth, made up by the Earth crust and the Earth upper mantle—, and the thin spherical film where living beings are found [1, 23]. For Suess, the biosphere comprised life and environmental conditions such as temperature, pressure, and chemical compounds. Vernadsky used for the first time the term biosphere in 1924, in his essay La Géochimie, which was based on a series of lectures he had given at La Sorbonne in 1922 and 1923. Philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941), and mathematician and philosopher Eduard Le Roy (1870–1954) attended those lectures, and they and Vernadsky influenced to each other’s thoughts [1]. It is the concept of biosphere related to biogeochemistry, expressed in La Géochimie, that is widely accepted today. Vernadsky understood biosphere as the external envelope of the Earth which is inhabited by living things, and comprises both all the living organisms of the planet and the elements of inorganic nature providing the medium for their habitat. Thus, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements and chemical compounds involved in the vital process are constituent parts of the biosphere. As are the products of organisms activities, such as animal burrows and lairs, birds’ nests, deposits of lime and of fossil fuels. Even water is a component—a major component—of the biosphere [8]. Solar radiation, which is crucial for the maintenance of life on Earth, should be considered also a biosphere’s component, and so should products of human activities. In fact, the human species is a major changing force in the current composition of the biosphere.

The study of the biosphere cannot be made only by biologists. To study its components and their interactions, a multidisciplinary approach is needed. However, at Vernadsky’s times nobody even thought of interdisciplinarity. His theory was actually far ahead of the times when it arose. By portraying life as a global phenomenon, in which the sun’s energy was transformed on Earth into a kind of “green fire”—it referred to photosynthesis—he made an anticipation of global ecology; and he made also an anticipation of the concept of “ecosystem” [7, 29].
Mercè Piqueras [ @lectoracorrent ] in the Introduction to her paper “Meeting the Biospheres: on the translations of Vernadsky’s work” (PDF).  Published in International Microbiology: The official journal of the Spanish Society for Microbiology, Volume 1, ISSN: 11396709, (Barcelona, Spain: Springer, June 2, 1998), p. 165.

One comment so far

  1. A thought to come back to later: if the concept of the biosphere is intended to be descriptive of the spacetime location of the part of the earth’s vicinity coincidentally conducive to organic life, then what do we say of astronauts (are they extending the biosphere?) or spirit, and cosmic currents.

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