April 23rd, 2012 • 3:30 PM
2012 Astrobiology Conference: Meet Vladimir Vernadsky

by Meghan Rouillard

Last week I not only had the opportunity to attend and to do a poster presentation at the 2012 NASA Astrobiology Conference in Atlanta, I had the opportunity of bringing a special guest with me-- his name is Vladimir Vernadsky.

To my surprise, the man who developed the field of biogeochemistry, the concept of the Biosphere in the Cosmos, the Noosphere--all of which which seem so important for a field such as astrobiology, was virtually totally unknown to the participants at this conference. Astrobiologists also represent probably the only community of scientists for whom Alexander Oparin is practically a household name. Oparin, who, unlike Vernadsky, was totally endorsed by the Soviet regime since his ideas meshed so well with dialectical materialism, attempted to develop a purely chemical theory of evolution in his 1924 book, “The Origin of Life.”

In this context, I was all the more happy to be able to present concepts from Vernadsky’s 1938 paper which features his vast table on the fundamental material-energetic distinctions of living and inert natural bodies.

Here is a link to the poster where it can also be downloaded for viewing.


Organizing during poster session

The title of the poster and the abstract I submitted was “Kepler 22-b and Universal Life ,” also the title of an LPAC video produced back in December. Around that time, the Kepler telescope reported the discovery of a series of exoplanets, Kepler 22-b being one of the more highly publicized ones. Planets like Kepler 22-b are located in the “Goldilocks zone” where liquid water should exist on a planet’s surface. With this condition comes the idea of an ideal distance, temperature, and pressure in which earth-like life could theoretically exist. Oparin’s 1924 book describes the hypothetical evolution of our solar system and focuses on earth as this ideal location with the proper elements in the proper state, and further suggests, but does not prove, that life could arise chemically from this “primordial soup.”

Of interest to me was the fact that Vernadsky’s study of life and its characteristics and requirements don’t focus on any of these habitable zone parameters. The poster started by taking people through a series of selections, with some elaboration, from Vernadsky’s 1938 paper. First of all, that:

“The artificial synthesis of a living natural body has never been accomplished. This indicates that some fundamental condition, required for such a synthesis, is absent in the laboratory. L. Pasteur identifies dissymmetry--a special state of space--as the missing condition.”

I had added to this quote from Vernadsky a note on the accounts of Pasteur trying (and failing) to generate the dissymmetry of living matter using physical forces, such as magnetic fields and a heliostat, for example. One person who came by the poster was totally shocked by this: “Pasteur really tried to do that? I had no idea!”

Next, the poster featured Vernadsky’s idea that the Redi Principle, "all life comes from life," could be reformulated as the Curie Principle--that the dissymmetry of an effect must be present in its cause. Hence, if the unique dissymmetry of living matter could only be generated in the presence of life, life possibly existed for eternity. Of course people were familiar with Curie, but not that his work had informed the study of life in this way.

This brings up to the next selection from Vernadsky’s paper which allowed me to make a nice jab at Oparin. Here, Vernadsky refers to the unique isotope fractionation found in living matter-- for example, the unique ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-13 which is a by-product of photosynthesis. I had written a paper in 2010 on this subject . While some kinds of isotope fractionation have "physical" explanations, a whole category don’t-- called mass-independent isotope fractionation. In discussions with a NASA researcher who works on isotope fractionation in Titan’s atmosphere, he acknowledged that nobody knows the answer to the specific problem of what drives this mass-independent fractionation. Vernadsky saw the isotope fractionation in life as having a greater significance than a simple physics problem, and Oparin also saw this as a bit of a thorn in the side of his theory. In a work assembled by him in the 1950’s, based on the Symposium on the Origin of Life on Earth, Oparin discusses Vernadsky in the chapter called, “The Eternity of Life,” and acknowledges the problem of needing to explain the origination of this biological isotope fractionation:

“The direct transition from materials which have not arisen biogenically to living things would seem to be excluded on account of the profound differences in isotopic composition.”

Next came Vernadsky’s assertion that “there are no special biogenic chemical elements.” Carbon-based life is generally asserted as the first requirement of life, whereas Vernadsky virtually dismisses it as a fundamental criterion. In fact, Bernhard Riemann in his Philosophical Fragments, consistent with his efforts to examine the fundamental assumptions underlying geometry, poses this as a problem to solve, rather than an assertion: “Why are only these four organic elements {C, H, O, N} the universal carriers of the life process?” An astrobiologist from Chile who works with extremophiles in the Atacama desert commented that this approach was really eye-opening for him, and important for his work-- he said, “This is great, because I am always thinking that I need to be able to recognize life as I don’t know it here on earth!”

Just as Vernadsky thought that the space-time of living matter had a chiral quality, so should its time-- Einstein had showed that these two are intrinsically linked. This was addressed in the poster by several selections from Vernadsky’s paper which we have elaborated on the LPAC site, including the increase of free-energy, biogenic migration, cephalization-- a general phenomenon of time irreversibility which can be measured on evolutionary time-scales. One attendee was especially interested in the “cone pedagogy” and how we had put this together. A physicist commented that it was really amazing, some of these terms Vernadsky is using are only thought of as physics terms-- he is using this language of physics and transforming it by discussing the concept of a unique biological space-time.

Lastly, in terms of the poster presentation, some more speculative and provocative questions for people to think about were posed-- Vernadsky tasked mathematicians and experimentalists to work to find a geometry which exhibits some of these characteristics of life-- is this possible? What would this mean if it were done? What would it look like, and what would be its use? What would the presence of some, but not all, of these characteristics of living matter mean if located in the universe-- for example, an axis of preferential handedness of galaxies? Could it represent a greater potential for life? And of course, the Kepler mission should take to heart the message of Kepler himself from his Harmonices Mundi, also featured on the poster-- that so-called matter can resonate with the higher principle of human creativity. A high school student and a NASA researcher accompanying her to see the different posters had never heard of this work, and the high school student had never even heard of Kepler. Also featured on the poster was a quote from LaRouche on this topic on a non-reductionist approach to the study of life and cognition, seeking for a definition “which is of the ontological character of metaphor.”

What was also provocative for people was the fact that both myself and Cody Jones were attending and presenting at this event as representatives of a political action committee. Some people who approached me at the poster were taken aback--wait, you are doing this work, and you work for a PAC? But people responded very well to the fact that we were not only committed to pursuing the frontiers of science ourselves, but were also fighting for that as the basis for what should define policy-making, as this is outlined in the Planetary Defense report which we had on hand at the conference. Our role in challenging the take-down of our space program under Obama is important, as many in this field are currently taking the approach of simply trying to ignore it. The “NASA night” on the last evening of the conference, which featured a presentation on Obama’s budget, the most obviously abysmal feature of which is the Mars component, was probably the least well attended session of the entire conference.

I also got out about 20 copies of Vernadsky’s 1938 paper to conference attendees who I spoke with, including presenters on subjects ranging from the symmetry of amino acid material in primitive asteroids to the work of Oparin directly (for those who've read his book, this woman had interestingly concluded that his coacervates could not be generated “pre-biotically”). Even these people were only somewhat familiar with Vernadsky, but most people were being introduced for the first time to him, as one of the very few who knew of him beamed, “that towering figure of science!” The kinds of ideas humanity needs now should necessitate that Vernadsky increasingly take on that role in the minds of many.

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