Share this article with friends
by Rudolf BALANDIN, member of the RAS Commission for the Study of Academician V. I. Vernadsky's Scientific Heritage
November 8, 1883 is the birthday of Alexander Yevgenyevich Fersman, Russian mineralogist, geochemist, geologist and crystallographer, Academician since 1919. Readers at large know him as a major scientist, outstanding popularizer of science, a great connoisseur of gems who described them with real poetic zeal.
According to a common misconception, creativity is mostly the lot of artists and men of letters. But there is no denying the fact that other areas of human activities know their true creators too, science being one of them. Alexander Fersman is a case in point, and an extremely talented and prolific at that. "In broadness of his interests, blended with relentless concern about benefit and glory of our Fatherland," Academician Dmitry Belyankin wrote, "Fersman reminds one of our immortal Lomonosov and Mendeleev".
Deserving of special mention is the fact that the Russian patriot Fersman, who took an active part in the two wars with Germany in 1900s, was German by birth. His father, Yevgeny Alexandrovich, an architect, graduated from the Russian Academy of the General Staff, was promoted to a high rank and taught at military schools.
As a youngster, Alexander with his friends went on geological tours of Crimea. Later he wrote: "We studied and examined each piece of rock
like a favorite corner of the garden. The eye got adjusted to color combinations, finest structural elements, thinnest veins and smallest crystals. We even tried to sketch these natural riches. In our drawings they looked grandiose. Crystals would grow into miraculous crystalline arrays, everything was getting incredibly large, magnificent, bright. Out imagination would amplify anything suggested by nature itself."
At that time young Fersman did not just admire the pictures of nature. It was then that he discovered in volcanic rock fractures sheets of fibrose tough "stone cardboard"-a theretofore unknown palygorskit group mineral (magnesium-aluminum silicate), which he later described in detail.
At first Alexander studied in Odessa where his father taught, then he entered the local university and later got transferred to Moscow University. There for the first time ever he chanced to listen to lectures of Academician Vladimir Vernadsky who could talk like none else about the life of minerals: their birth and metamorphoses in the subsoil and on the surface, taking students into the world of geochemistry.
Fersman started his first independent research in 1906. Then he wrote to Vernadsky: "I have just finished an article about barytes... A bore and a drag... I do not dare to send my article on palygorskit to you, as a lot in it is too presumptuous and unproven as far as the description of palygorskit as an independent mineral species is concerned". This admission suggests that the young man was not just keen to put forward new ideas but was able to question them and be critical of himself. These qualities, incidentally, were preserved by the scientist throughout his entire life.
Fersman took his trainee job abroad where most advanced equipment was available: in Paris, with the mineralogist and petrographer Alfred Lacroix, and in Heidelberg (Germany), with the crystallographer Victor Goldschmidt with whom he produced a monograph on diamonds published in German in 1911. "The painstaking work on the diamond," Fersman would tell, "took up to fifteen hours a day. On rare days did I manage to pull myself away from it to visit quarries, mines or factories of eastern Germany, see museum expositions and, chiefly, large displays of precious stones". In France he examined plaster-stones of Monmartre and sandstones of Fontainebleau and the dead volcanoes of the Auvergne plateau. In Swiss mountains he studied ore- bearing veins. In Italy he spent a whole day on the roof of a Milano church watching its restoration... He was always enthusiastic, carried away by the cognition of nature and human activities.
Fersman's very first monograph "Diamonds" hit the top academic level. The accuracy of laboratory observations, generalization on an enormous number of facts, utilization of all available data, deep and original ideas, bold analogies are but a few of this outstanding work's remarkable features.
Starting from 1909 Fersman works at Moscow University, and next year he is elected a professor of the Moscow City People's University named after Shanyavsky.
1912 became a milestone in his life: he read the first geochemistry course ever and took an active part in the creation of the Russian academic popular scientific magazine Priroda where he published about 100 articles in four years. In one of those entitled "Chemical Life of the Earth Crust" Fersman pointed out: "The omnipresent law of nature is a profound link of each phenomenon and each system with the environment, gradual replacement of certain equilibriums with others, death as transformation into new stable forms and as the germination of a new better future. This is the gist of natural laws, the laws of evolution, the survival of the fittest, the natural selection, chemical transformations and physical processes in all their profound complexity, finally, the entire human life with its incessant fight and permanent quest."
We will skip a detailed rendition of the scientist's biography. Suffice it to say that, apart from academic, he carried on an enormous practical work: was engaged in the program related to the provision of this country with mineral raw materials, participated in field prospecting, sometimes very strenuous and dangerous * . As a result, Fersman discovered some apatite fields in the Khibines, fields of radioactive ores in Fergana, of rare metals in Transbaikalia, of sulfur in Kara Kum. And never would Alexander Fersman give up theoretical studies. He authored the fundamental monograph "Pegmatites" (1931), the unique four-volume "Geochemistry" (1933 - 1939) and "Geochemical and Mineralogical Methods of Prospecting for Mineral Resources" (1940), a book essential for effective organization of geological survey. The list would be incomplete without mentioning his "The Essays on the History of Stone", absolutely original in style and content, which were not finished and were published only after the author's death:
* See: D. Rundkwist, N. Yushkin, "Treasures of Timan and Urals", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2002. - Ed .
volume 1 in 1954, volume 2 in 1961. Here is how Alexander Fersman himself commented on his work: "My book is absolutely special, it strives to reconcile science with arts, an artistic work, perhaps, even poetry". And that much he managed. His objective was defined by Fersman as follows: "I want to carry the reader away into a new world, the world of stone, to let him discover the enormous riches of our great country in gems and colored stone. I can see elements of beauty and harmony inherent in stone itself. I want to extract raw, apparently unsavory material from the bosom of the earth to make it perceivable by human eye and mind..."
A nice Nellie could, perhaps, hear some superfluous elation in his words. But let us not forget that is written by a major expert in the field, academician who strives to reveal the authentic beauty of cognition. I cannot but quote still another of his redes: "I have realized in these days that there are no impenetrable barriers between true science and creative quest of an artist, that a single work needs embrace both a scientist's labors and a writer's creative impulses, that it is possible and necessary to go beyond the rigid framework of dry academic treatises to introduce people to the magnificent world of stone..."
It might seem that was a way for the scientist to give vent to his literary talent. Possible. Fersman's disposition to literary work was once noted by Maxim Gorky and Alexei Tolstoi. That is confirmed by such splendid popular science works of his as "Entertaining Mineralogy" (1928), "Memories of Stone" (1940), "Entertaining Geochemistry" (1948) and others. Resorting to this original genre he tried not just to share his knowledge with broad public, to relate the achievements of his professional sphere of research, but also to break the narrow limits of a scientific method and a specific discipline, to make broad generalizations and put forward bold hypotheses. One way or another, for Fersman that was exactly so.
Take his geochemical ideas, for once. He has introduced into science the notion of "clark", after the American scientist who was first to calculate the occurrence of chemical elements in the core, which describes the relative quantity of atoms of a certain element in a cosmic body or a part thereof. Next, the scientist updated clarks for different geospheres, constructed respective graphs, giving Mendeleev's Periodic Law geochemical touch, thus elucidating the correlation between the earth crust chemical composition and the structure of atoms.
In Fersman's view, the migration of chemical elements is determined by ions (atoms with the shortage or abundance of electrons) which participate in mineral lattices the more actively and the firmer, the higher is their charge and the smaller the radius. Hence, he suggested to compute the energy constant of the ion on the basis of its "energy input" to the lattice. With the help of such indicators the scientist analyzed real natural processes (crystallization of melts, concentration of separate elements, etc.). In some cases the result was superb. But failures happened too, primarily, since it was hard to take into consideration the variety of geochemical migration factors contributed by most complex molecular structures, including living organisms.
Fersman's geoenergetic theory has enriched the earth science with new ideas, highlighted prospects of
further research but received no follow-up. Figuratively speaking, he has erected a colossal scaffold of an enormous number of facts, formulas, tables and diagrams. But the theoretical construction has remained incomplete. Perhaps, the author left the work for the future. It is no secret that at the time Dr. Fersman was extremely busy; besides, the last years of his life (he died in 1945) fell upon the Great Patriotic War when he had to invest a lot of effort in the defense of the country.
Here is how he concluded the third volume of "Geochemistry": "No doubt, this research is largely imperfect, a lot is not thought out thoroughly, a lot will require radical revision and development. But such is the dialectics of every new way, such is the history of every new area of research... It only remains to wish for a thinker to come forward as soon as possible to piece together odd facts and form a single building of geochemical energy physics." No such person is here yet, although the intellectual potential of Fersman's theory is far from being exhausted. No less prospective is still another trend of research initiated by Fersman, the teaching of technogenesis outlined in the second volume of "Geochemistry". He wrote: "By technogenesis we imply a complex of chemical and technological processes generated by human activities and leading to redistribution of crust chemical masses. Technogenesis is geochemical activity of industrial man." He further justified his thesis as follows: "man transforms the world geochemically."
In the last quarter of the 20th century this country started to amplify Vernadsky's noosphere concept assuming that the transformation of earth nature, biosphere, is based on scientific thought as a planetary phenomenon. Coming to
the fore in this case is the subjective intellectual factor which is but indirectly connected with natural processes. The real force which impacts them is not human mind at all ("noos" in Greek) but powerful technology. And while Fersman has coined the notion of biogenesis to denote the geological activity of living organisms, it is but logical to recognize the notion of technogenesis. The more so since Fersman has justified it with specific facts, figures and formulas.
What Fersman failed to make the point of, is, to my mind, that technogenesis encompasses not just geochemical but also geophysical activities of humankind (movements of gigantic masses of rock and soil, redistribution of natural waters, triggering off of artificial earthquakes, etc.). And another, more serious comment. He agreed with the opinion of the English physicist and astrophysicist James Jeans ("New Foundation of Science", 1933) that human intellectual activity is contrary to the second law of thermodynamics, while technology and organization of natural environment reduce entropy (energy dispersion). Vernadsky believed so too in full accord with his concept of passing onto a new higher stage of scientific, more rational arrangement of life in noosphere.
That was a grave misconception. It did not take into account the negative consequences of technogenesis which, in rough estimate, surpass its positive effects more than tenfold. And, generally, the law of degradation of energy belongs to closed systems while the biosphere is not such one.
But whatever queries of individual postulates of Fersman's technogenesis teaching, they cannot belittle the significance of the outstanding scientific achievement which was not fully appreciated by either the author himself or adepts of the earth science who came later. As it is usually put, the ecological trend prevailed. It, sure, has its advantages but lacks a general ideal pivot which might, probably, be provided by the teaching of technogenesis and, as a follow-up, of the global human geological activities in technosphere.
The heuristic value of Fersman's ideas is demonstrated by the following. Back in 1934 he was one of the first to note the increase of the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere. According to his estimate, within the technogenesis concept, "the doubling of CO 2 content in the air would result in the increase of the average surface temperature by 4 degrees, and that is why we would observe a most serious change of the climatic regime and vegetation processes". Fersman pointed out the supplementary consequences thereof stressing that the process would be gradual, with partial offsets, and still fraught in "grandiose changes in the course of geological processes". Also, Fersman was the first to suggest organizing technogenesis in such a way, so as to minimize the mining and processing industry waste.
Alexander Fersman's life and work go to show that the history of science is a source of new ideas. The only thing we have to do is to tap this well of knowledge.
Permanent link to this publication:
LRussia LWorld Y G