The forgotten man behind Biosphere 2

University of Arizona journalism professor Carol Schwalbe, left, speaks with Russian film presenter Peter Romanov at Biosphere 2 on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Oracle, Arizona. Romanov, along with co-director Alexey Shutov, right, and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, are making a documentary about the life of geologist Vladimir Vernadsky. (Photo by Justin Sayers)

University of Arizona journalism professor Carol Schwalbe, left, speaks with Russian film presenter Peter Romanov at Biosphere 2 on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014, in Oracle, Arizona. Romanov, along with co-director Alexey Shutov, right, and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, are making a documentary about the life of geologist Vladimir Vernadsky. (Photo by Justin Sayers)

The “grandfather” of Biosphere 2 is finally getting his due.

Vladimir Vernadsky, a scientist who made contributions to the fields of geochemistry and biogeochemistry, usually isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton or Galileo. But the inventor of the concept of biosphere is the subject of a documentary in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. The film, which was commissioned by the Russian Geographical Society, is being shot by a Russian film crew.

The crew, which consists of co-director Alexey Shutov, film presenter and geologist Peter Romanov and director of photography Nikolai Orlov, recently spent four days filming at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. The University of Arizona-owned facility serves as a giant vivarium where researchers conduct Earth systems experiments.

The film crew stayed in casitas at the facility and spent all day shooting, only taking breaks for meals and sleep.

A fourth member of the crew, co-director Julia Kolesnik, stayed back in Moscow, Russia, to tend to her 3-month-old son.

The film crew approached Biosphere 2 about filming at the facility. Biosphere 2 typically authorizes only five or six filmmakers a year. Roughly 20 groups have shot here since the University of Arizona took over the facility in 2007.

The documentary should be done by winter 2015 and will be shown on Russian television, Romanov said.

The documentary has taken the crew to France, where Vernadsky worked and lived and wrote a number of his most famous books, and parts of Russia. But Arizona was different because it has a mystical aspect: Vernadsky predicted in his memoirs that something like Biosphere 2 would be built in the States.

Defining Biosphere

Vladimir Vernadsky was born in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, on March 12, 1863. His father was a Ukrainian political economy professor, his mother a Russian noblewoman. Vernadsky graduated from Saint Petersburg University in 1885 and entered the field of mineralogy.

It was during this time that he developed the idea of “biosphere,” a term that was created by Austrian geologist Eduard Suess in 1875. Biosphere refers to the thin envelope of water, oxygen, food and energy sources that living beings survive on, said Matt Adamson, assistant to the director of Biosphere 2. In other words, it’s a summation of the Earth’s ecosystems.

“Many people who work in this area say he’s the father of the term ‘biosphere,’” Adamson said. “He’s the one who coined it.”

Vernadsky built on Suess’ concept and theorized that the resources that make up Earth’s ecosystems, like water, atmosphere and land, are finite. “He essentially defined the Earth as a closed system,” Adamson said.

Vernadsky’s research inspired Claire Folsom, a scientist at the University of Washington in the 1960s. Folsom conducted research in ecospheres, or tiny, sealed glass vessels. Ecospheres, which are essentially aquarium-sized miniatures of the Earth, were the predecessors of Biosphere 2.

Although Vernadsky died in 1945, Biosphere 2 was created with his theories and principles in mind, Adamson said. Construction of the facility began in 1987 and was completed in 1991.

Vernadsky probably isn’t mentioned in the same breath as top scientists because his research affects a specialized audience. “His science is esoteric enough because it’s not the first thing you’re going to be teaching,” Adamson said. “He’s enough of a niche scientist, so you’d have to get pretty deep into science education before you run across him.”

Long-Lasting Impact

Vernadsky’s research was holistic, looking at how both ecosystems and humans played a role in evolution. His integrative approach was not widely accepted during his day but has become the basis for research at many places around the world, including Biosphere 2.

Vernadsky’s ability to “foresee the perspective” and be a step ahead of his co-workers stemmed from his broad background in science, said co-director Julia Kolesnik. Even today, his scientific value is seen in many fields, including mineralogy, radiology, biosphere studies, geochemistry and biogeochemistry, a scientific discipline he created.

Dragos Zaharescu, a postdoctoral researcher at Biosphere 2, is working on a project that looks at how plant-microbe interactions affect the weathering of four rock types: basalt, granite, schist and rhyolite. The research is helping fill a hole in how physical forces combined with plants, bacteria and fungi result in the weathering of primary minerals and the formation of soil.

As a result, Zaharescu said that if he could bring one person, living or dead, to Biosphere 2, he would choose Vernadsky. “He was the first person who saw Earth as a whole living organism,” Zaharescu said.

Mystery Man

Kolesnik came across Vernadsky’s work while she was studying geography at Moscow State University. She has watched a number of documentaries about the researcher and found that there were too many missing parts of his life and heritage.

A lot of those holes stem from the mysterious aspect of Vernadsky, whose work in some areas is still being deciphered.

For example, Vernadsky also created the term noosphere, which refers to the third stage of life in the development of Earth. It follows geosphere, or inanimate matter, and biosphere, or biological life. The first two stages represent life and cognition, the two factors responsible for Earth’s evolution.

Although he invented the concept of noosphere in the 1920s, it still isn’t fully understood by the scientific community.

Kolesnik said she took on the documentary not only to fill the holes about Vernadsky’s life but also to inspire researchers to revisit his discoveries and show their continued relevance today.

“In Russia the figure of Vernadsky is at the moment sort of static, as if made of stone,” Kolesnik said via email. “Behind the name and monuments, the actual person and his doings are lost. I hope with our film we’d be able to show a live person and alive ideas and create interest for the modern science.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 572: Science Journalism class.