Monday, May 18, 2020

Victor Gorshkov (1935-2019): a life for the biosphere.

The basic concept of the biotic regulation of Earth's temperature according to Victor Gorshkov and his coworkers. The figure shows the potential function U(T) for the global mean surface temperature. Stable states correspond to pits, unstable states to hills. The modern value of +15°C (288 K) corresponds to an unstable state (2, thin line). Physically stable states correspond to a frozen Earth (state 1) and a red-hot Earth (state 3). We are precariously living in a shallow minimum of potential energy that defines the habitable zone for the biosphere. This state can be created and maintained only by a healthy biosphere.

On May 10th, 2019, Victor Georgievic Gorshkov died at 83 in St. Petersburg, after a life dedicated to scientific research that he continued to perform up to nearly the last moment. One year later, I thought I could publish this small homage to his figure and his work. His longtime coworker and companion, Anastassia Makarieva, was also kind enough to write a summary of Gorshkov's life and work for this blog.

In many ways, science follows the 20/80 rule, sometimes called the "Pareto's rule," which tells that 80% of the work is performed by just 20% of the performers. But it may well be that Pareto was an optimist if his rule is applied to science. It seems more likely that science works because, as Newton said long ago, a small number of creative "giants" emerge out of the general mediocrity. One of these creative people, a true giant of science, was Victor Gorshkov (1935-2019), researcher at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, in Russia.

Understanding Gorshkov's work and ideas takes some time and patience. He was trained as a theoretical physicist and his approach was very different from the way most western scientists operate in the field of ecology. I would say that it was exactly this difference that attracted me and made me tackle the non-trivial effort to read one of two main books: Biotic Regulation of the Environment, 2000.  (see also Physical and Biological Bases of Life Stability, 1995). Reading Victor's work is a refreshing experience: you feel the intellectual freedom that pervades it, the sheer beauty of exploring new concepts and new ideas. And that's true also for other ideas proposed by Gorshkov and his coworkers, such as the concept of the "biotic pump." (you can learn about these and other ideas on the "Biotic Regulation site").

Russian science suffers from many of the same problems that plague science in the West: lack of resources, hyperspecialization, bureaucracy, creativity stifling, "Superstar scientists," and more. But, apparently, it can still produce outstanding researchers. Gorshkov's work is important for many reasons but I would say that one is how it highlights how in the West we may well be "hypermodelized." We tend to put a lot of trust in complex, multi-parameter models and, sometimes, we tend to think that models are the reality. Models can easily lead us astray and they can also generate a backlash with non-scientists: a good example is the recent debacle of the multiparameter model of virus diffusion used by the research group of professor Neil Ferguson, in London.

Gorshkov's approach was very different: he used physics to highlight the boundaries of the system and then exploring its behavior. This approach is relevant for climate science: in the West, models are considered the main -- if not the only -- tool to understand climate change. They are remarkable tools developed by highly competent people. But these models cannot normally tell us the limits of stability of the system that Gorshkov and his coworkers had already identified in their work, and that only recently have started to make their way in the Western debate. This is the truly critical issue of climate change:are tipping points going to destroy our civlization?

More than all, Gorshkov's work was all a homage to the great power of the biosphere and an attempt to stop its destruction. On this point, the best Russian and Western thinkers are of the same opinion. But can we stop the destruction? Not easy, but we must continue to try. Victor Gorshkov himself was an optimist and we can hope he will turn out to have been right.

Victor Gorshkov, his life, and the discovery of biotic regulation

by Anastassia Makarieva

Victor Gorshkov was born on 12th July 1935 in Leningrad to a family of two physicists. He was born an optimist and he lived a very happy life.

This is Victor’s photo taken in the yard of their apartment house on Vasilyevsky Island, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) historical district, approximately 1937. Many of the kids behind him probably died of hunger during the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad in 1941-1943. The Radium Institute where Victor’s father worked was evacuated to Kazan, Victor’s family followed and survived.

He became a theoretical physicist. I was Victor’s student and, since October 1994, I have been his coworker until he died on the 10th of May 2019. Describing him is akin to describing the Universe. By common judgment, Victor belonged to the kind of cats who walk by themselves.

He used to tell me that there are five spheres of life, each able to completely fulfill one’s realization as a personality. They were Nature, Science, Women, Music, and Tennis. He lived them all. Victor played the piano very well and he was a fervent tennis player. He was a skillful dancer and very fond of alpine skiing.

Among the five, Nature and Science (or Science and Nature, the order was never quite clear), appeared to be the main ones. Victor spent all his free time completely disconnected from the civilization in the remote wilderness areas of Russia, in the basins of Ob, Yenisey, and on the White Sea.

 This photo was taken about 80 years after the first one, during our last trip together to the White Sea.

In the late 1970s, Victor finally merged his interests in Nature and Science and turned away from the more conventional areas of theoretical physics where he had been quite successful. He founded a new research topic “Physical and Biological Bases of Life Stability” in the Theoretical Department of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute. He formulated the concept of the biotic regulation of the environment according to which natural ecosystems create and control the environment favorable for their existence.

Unique to Victor’s theory was a joint quantitative consideration of the environmental, ecological, and genetic characteristics of the biota. Victor started from the consideration of the carbon cycle by noting the extremely short turnover time of carbon in all major pools (approx. ten years) compared to the characteristic times of observable environmental stasis.

Could the biota adapt to rapid environmental changes it can itself induce? Proving that impossible would constitute proof that the biota controls the environment rather than adapts to it. Such proof required analyzing the rate of generation of genetic variability in various species and contrasting them with the rate of environmental change by finding some transitional dimensions between the two.

With his training in theoretical physics, Victor originally knew nothing about genetics and biology in general and had to learn everything from scratch. For example, he told me that, in the beginning, he was very irritated by the “DNA word” and tried to avoid papers mentioning it. Several years of intense self-learning enabled him not just to make the necessary conclusions for the multidisciplinary concept of the biotic regulation, but also arrive at results appreciated by the more narrow circle of professionals dealing exclusively with evolution or ecology.

In particular, his idea was that if adaptation is governed by intraspecific genetic variability, then the largest and least numerous species (e.g. mammals) should have been adapting by many orders of magnitude more slowly than the smallest and most numerous (like unicellular ones). The contrasting reality is that all species, big and small, give rise to new species at approximately the same rate, once in a few million years. These estimates testified against intraspecific genetic adaptation to an ever-changing environment. Rather, the environmental change came along as the result of some infrequent spontaneous evolutionary shifts of the biota.

Victor was an outstanding theoretical physicist. He taught me, “Be not afraid of not knowing other people’s misconceptions. It is a big asset. Reach out with a free mind, formulate your own ideas and use them as the compass to navigate across the seemingly chaotic evidence, seeing patterns, and verifying them.”

He also warned, “Never leave a remotest, smallest corner of the problem unattended. It is there that the solution (or self-disproval) may hide. When after a long work you feel totally lost and overwhelmed by controversial evidence and considerations, do not yield to despair – it is often a sign that the solution is close”.

Victor built the biotic regulation theory from several major blocks – carbon cycle, climate stability, the concept of the biotic pump of atmospheric moisture, genetic stability, and more. Along this remarkable researcher’s path, there was one discovery he was especially overwhelmed by. He never ceased to emphasize its importance, considered it to be a key point of the theory. His final ecological work reviews and develops this discovery. It is about the effect of large animals on the ecosystem.

The body sizes of living organisms range from less than one micron to several meters. Everything in life depends on body size. These dependencies are usually described by dimensionless scaling laws (called allometries in biology) of the simplest form dx/x = a dy/y. Is there a characteristic body size meaningful for life stability in general?

Life features a conspicuous yet enigmatic dichotomy. It consists of immobile organisms like trees and locomotive organisms like animals. Plants receive energy from solar photons and generate net primary production at a rate of about P = 1 W/m2.

On the other hand, as Victor discovered from his extensive analysis of published literature, all living beings on a grand average consume energy at a rate of about q = 103 W/m3. The ratio of these two fundamental constants has the dimension of linear size, L = P/q = 1 mm. This critical body size divides life into the big and the small, the immobile and the locomotive, into the ecologically stable and the ecologically unstable.
j = ql3/l2

The dependency of the energy consumption, j, per unit area in organisms of different sizes versus primary production P. Beyond the critical body size, locomotion is a must. Smaller animals can live without active locomotion.

Organisms of linear size l smaller than L, consume less power than the biosphere generates, j = ql3/l2 < P per unit area of their projection on the Earth’s surface (l2). Such organisms do not need to destroy plants. They can sit and wait until the dead plant parts fall down to become their food. They do not need to move. They can form a continuous cover.

In contrast, species larger than the critical body size cannot sit and wait. They require more food per unit area and per unit time than the biosphere is able to produce. Such organisms have to move and to destroy the biomass of live plants. Each such species, which evolution continuously makes bigger and bigger, represents a time bomb for the ecosystem.

Born to destroy live plants, as soon as such organisms go out of their permissible green corridor (low population densities), they can eliminate primary producers and thus life itself. It is just a matter of time when a big species with a sufficient destructive potential appears in the course of evolution, which generally moves life towards spontaneous decay.

A forest enclosure for wild boars who destroyed all plants on the ground preventing tree re-growth

So, Homo Sapiens arrived and, governed by our innate instinct to destroy, we have been destroying the biosphere on a global scale. That was nothing new – many big species did the same to their ecosystem.

Victor was an optimist. He thought that a unique property of humans – the ability to sometimes overcome their genetic instincts with science-based reason – would allow them not only to stop the degradation they inflict themselves but – by returning to the permissible green corridor and not allowing any other species going out of it – probably even to become the guardians of life stability on Earth.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)