James Lovelock CH CBE FRS – author, scientist, environmentalist and futurist – celebrates his 100th birthday today. I first came across Lovelock’s work in the 1970s and was at first annoyed, then puzzled, then impressed, and finally inspired by his life and work. I am inspired not so much by the actual work for which he is best known (the ‘Gaia hypothesis’) but more by the way he has gone about his life and work and his own commitments to those around him and to keeping going. In this short article to celebrate Lovelock’s centenary, I’d like to try to shed a little light on his life and what I have taken from it.
James Lovelock was born on 26 July 1919 in Letchworth Garden City, north of London, in modest surroundings. His dislike of authority made him an unhappy school pupil and he could not afford to go to university – which he later said prevented him from over-specialising and therefore helped him in making cross-disciplinary breakthroughs like Gaia. During the second world war he ended up studying chemistry at the University of Manchester (initially as a conscientious objector, though he changed his stance followed news of Nazi atrocities) and followed this up with researching into the shielding of soldiers from burns. Lovelock refused to use the rabbits provided for this research, preferring to experiment on himself!
Following a post-war PhD in medicine, Lovelock worked for two decades at London’s National Institute for Medical Research. He carried out original work on cryogenics, and started to invent equipment to support his research, including the electron capture detector, a very sensitive way to look for the presence of gases. Engaged by NASA in the early 1960s to work on the Viking programme of Mars landers, Lovelock showed that life (on Mars) could be found not by looking for traces similar to life on Earth but by a much more general method of seeing whether the Martian atmosphere was in disequilibrium (being disturbed by life). In the end, the Martian atmosphere was found to be stable – so no life. However, use of the same thinking and detectors resulted in the discovery of the impact of CFCs on ozone depletion in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Gaia hypothesis emerged from this planetary thinking. Lovelock proposed that the Earth and all its living and non-living components formed a single interacting system which provided (at least thus far) a self-balancing environment, that can be thought of as a single organism. The name Gaia came from the Greek earth goddess via his neighbour and author William Golding, who pointed out that a good name would be important. Lovelock followed this up with his Daisyworld computer simulation, showing how fluctuations in white (reflecting) and black (non-reflecting) daisies could self-regulate temperature. While this hypothesis was accepted by environmentalists, it found less acceptance initially with scientists who didn’t like the concept of an ‘organism’ to be stretched in this way.
With his living expenses taken care of by royalties from the electron capture detectors and other inventions, Lovelock set up as an independent scientist in his barn/research station on the Devon/Cornwall border. He writes, pursues his own interests without interference from university funding proposals and continues to develop his ideas on the future of Earth. He is a strong proponent of nuclear energy as a low-carbon power sources, and is in favour of geo-engineering as a way to tackle the climate crisis. Both of these are (unfashionably) large-scale tech solutions which are out of favour with many environmentalists. His latest writings (Novacene, 2019) discuss how artificial intelligence will eventually combine with the planet’s natural mechanisms to provide a home for electronic, if not human, life.
I read Lovelock’s book Homage To Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (Oxford University Press, 2000) when it first appeared. I love the idea of being an independent scientist. Lovelock described how his ‘pot-boilers’ (way of steadily making money) allowed him to develop new ideas, and I have striven to follow his example. In my case, my early career in management development and in particular teaching corporate trainers about ‘accelerated learning’ methods gave me a good income to support our efforts with Solutions Focus and later Host Leadership. It’s a great privilege to be able to follow my own interests without needing permission or funding from other people.
I also admire the way in which Lovelock takes somewhat contrary positions, backing his own reasoning. He is loved by many in the environmental community for proposing Gaia, and at the same time they dislike his principled stance on nuclear energy. The scientific community were wowed by his instrument inventions but appalled (to start with) at this hippyish proposal that the whole Earth is (or at least can be taken as) an organism. This latter position is now less controversial than it was, with earth systems science an important and growing field. I too have been a long-term supporter of nuclear energy (where I started my career in the 1980s) and have felt the disapproval of friends who (lazily in my view) take a whole group of different causes as one – CND, anti-apartheid, trades unionism, vegetarian, anti-business, anti-big tech (but pro small-tech like smart phones), anti-nuclear energy. I’ll make up my own mind, thank you.
James Lovelock and I are both scientists. I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘recovering physicist’. This always gets a laugh, with its sideways glance at the difficulties of alcohol addiction. It’s only partly a joke though; having had a strong science education to PhD level I have a low tolerance for those who poo-poo science, those who steal and twist its language in their own interests (‘energy facilitation’, anyone?) and those who don’t share my interest in using words as precisely as possible where science or logic are concerned. Only last week, I was asked whether in change management it was necessary to involve top management at the start. Yes, it’s a good idea. Yes, it can pay dividends. Yes, if you don’t do it you may run into difficulties later. But necessary? For something to be necessary it must be present in every single case. So no, it’s not necessary – there are examples of successful work without it. (I have learned since my PhD that not every question is about physics, and that there are many aspects of life to which science is not the answer.)
Lovelock keeps on going, developing his thinking, writing about it and making interesting interventions. I hope I can do the same. Happy birthday James and ‘lang may yer lum reek’ (as we say here in Scotland).
Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He proudly continues the tradition of working as an independent scientist and seeks to show people how things they thought were very hard can in fact be tackled with a counterintuitively modest amount of awareness, skill and capability. http://sfwork.com