Bubnoff, Serge Nikolaevich von

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(b. St. Petersburg, Russia, 15 July 1888; d. Berlin, German Democratic Republic, 16 November 1957)


Bubnoff was the son of Nikolai von Bubnov, a Russian physician, and of his German wife, Maria Türstig von Bubnoff. After their father’s death in 1889, Serge and his two brothers were brought up by their mother. Despite a hearing defect that he did not overcome until later in life, with the use of a hearing aid. Bubnoff graduated from the First St. Petersburg Gymnasium with a gold medal in 1906. He had a perfect command of both German and Russian When the family moved to Heidelberg, he enrolled at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. from which he graduated in 1910. Bubnoff was then an assistant at the Geological-Paleontological Institute at the University of Freiburg (1910–1911) and worked for the Baden Geological Survey (1911–1913). In 1912 he obtained the doctorate with a dissertation titled “Die Tektonik der Dinkelbirge bei Basel.” From 1913 to 1914 he went on a study tour to Italy and Russia. Bubnoff studied petrography at the St. Petersburg School of Mines with the crystallographer E. S. Federov and became acquainted with prominent Russian geologists, From 1914 to 1920 he was Wilhelm Salomon-Calvi’s assistant at Heidelberg, In 1921 he married Eleonor Schmitt; they had two daughters.

In 1921 Bubnoff went to Breslau, following his college friend Hans Cloos. There he qualified as Privatdozent with a Habilitationsschrift on Hercynian breaks in the Black Forest (“Die hercynischen Brüche im Schwarzwald.” 1922). He became a lecturer in geology and paleontology, and in 1925 he was appointed assistant professor at Breslau. In May 1929 he accepted a post at Greifswald University, where he was professor and head of the Institute of Geology and Paleontology until 1950. Bubnoff was elected corresponding member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (Berlin) in June 1941, and of the Geological Society of America in August 1948, In 1950 he went to Berlin, where he became head of the Institute (and Museum) of Geology and Paleontology of Humboldt University. He also succeeded Hans Stille as professor of geology and head of the Institute of Geotectonics at the German Academy of Sciences at Berlin.

Bubnoff devoted his life to the geological sciences, and was especially influenced by the works of Russian geologists. His work was honored by academic societies as well as by the government of the German Democratic Republic (he received the National Prize, first class, in 1953), In 1958 the GDR Geological Society endowed the Serge von Bubnoff Medal, which is awarded to scholars for outstanding scientific achievements in the investigation of the earth.

Bubnoff made fundamental contributions to the expansion of the regional geological knowledge of Germany and of Europe. His first studies of the tectonics of the Jura plateau in southern Germany and of the granites in the Black Forest and in Thuringia were followed by works on the geology and tectonics of the coal-mining areas in Lower Silesia. His book on the theory of nappes of the Alps was published in 1921. During his years at Greifswald, he took a particular interest in the geology of Bornholm and southern Sweden. Bubnoff’s method was characterized by constant endeavor to discover greater spatial and temporal connections on the basis of concrete and detailed geological facts. It was his aim to elucidate the history of an eruptive body with respect to its substance and structure by combining geological, petrographic and structural analyses. His great capacity for synthetic geological thought becomes evident in his Geologie von Europa (1926–1936), published in four volumes, His Fennosarmatia (1952) represents a summary of several works on the regional geological structure of central Europe written in the first half of the twentieth century.

In his book Grundprobleme der Geologie (1931) Bubnoff made important theoretical contributions to the investigation of the earth. Working from epistemological ideas, he came out against ill-balanced interpretations of geological documents, discussed the concept of time in geology, and systematized the geotectonic components. He developed his own tectonic conception (“Die Gliederung der Erdrinde,” 1923) by subdividing the earth’s crust into (1) permanent continental blocks, (2) permanent oceans, (3) weakly mobile plates, and (4) strongly mobile geosynclines. Important criteria for his characterization of the components of the earth’s crust were mobility of the structural zones, oscillating amplitudes of their surfaces, tendencies of their vertical movements, the character of their tectonic deformation, and their thickness. Using these criteria, Bubnoff discussed the mechanisms of orogenesis and examined the different aspects of both the fixistic and mobilistic theories. To a certain extent he supported the ideas of mobilism, although he believed that the hypothesis that America drifted from the Old World could hardly be maintained in its original version. His explanation of orogenesis was based on theories of magmatic currents that go back to ideas developed by Otto Ampferer in his “Über das Bewegungsbild von Faltengebirgen” (1906). According to Bubnoff, the diverse manifestation of tectonic movements

is hardly compatible with the theory of contraction, because this theory claims a simultaneity of movements all over the earth, which actually leaves no room for explaining phase differences and phase divergences, that is, different times of motion in different parts of the crust. On the other hand, phase differences quite agree with the theory of currents [Grundprobleme der Geologie (Haller, 1949). 220].

Bubnoff also tried to systematize general processes concerning the exogenous dynamics of the earth. From the Cambrian to the present he distinguished six major cycles, each characterized by specific facies and spatial features and concluded by an orogenetic phase. For each cycle he specified six facies phases according to the depth of the sea and the distance from the shore: first transgression trough to medium clastic), second transgression (fine clastic), inundation, differentiation, regression, and emersion. The spatial specification, which was above all due to a particular orientation of the direction of transgression, was deduced from the geological conditions in western Europe. According to Bubnoff’s calculations there was an acceleration of the sequence of cycles in the course of the earth’s history. The successive cycles with their six phases become shorter and shorter.

Bubnoff explained the history of the earth as a natural process of evolution. In 1948 he drew the following conclusion from his analysis of endogenous and exogenous processes:

In this way inorganic evolution in the history of the earth is characterized by “vergence,” that is, a linear-oriented component that results in differentiation and complication of the structure of the crust, and this makes the history of the earth a historical process that cannot be repeated. The development of the earth can be described neither as a circle nor as a line but rather as a combination of both, namely, a spiral [“Der Rhythmus der Erde.” in Universitas3 (1948). 966].

On the basis of detailed observation of nature, Bubnoff expounded his ideas about fundamental questions of geotectonics, paleogeography, and the methodology of geological sciences in 181 publications.


I. Original Works. A full bibliography of Bubnoff’s works is A. Illner, “Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten von Serge von Bubnoff.” in Geologie, 7 (1958). 251–256. A work in English is Fundamentals of Geology, W. T. Harry. trans. and ed. (Edinburgh, 1963).

II. Secondary Literature. Writings about Bubnoff include Gedenkschrift Serge von Bubnoff zu seinem 70. Geburtstag, a special issue of Geologie, 7 (1958). 237–860. See also F. Deubel, “Nachruf für Serge von Bubnoff,” in Geologie, 7 (1958), 100–101: Yevgenii Yevgenevich Malinovskii, “Znamenityi nemetskii geolog S. N. Bubnoff v Moskovskom Universitete” (Outstanding German geologist S. N. Bubnoff at Moscow University), in Vestnik Moskovskogo universiteta, 1 (1957), 236–258; and Yevgenii Yevgenevich Malinovskii and Günter Möbus. “Serge N. von Bubnoff und seine Bedeutung für die Entwicklung der deutsch-sowjetischen Beziehungen auf dem Gebiet der geologischen Wissenschaften,” in Zeitschrift für geologische Wissenschaften, 4 (1976), 457–467.

Martin Guntau