The Observer’s view of the brilliant James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia Theory

The Observer’s view of the brilliant James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia Theory

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Three years ago, at a gathering to mark his centenary, scientist James Lovelock was the subject of a rigorous 90-minute interview on the Exeter University stage. The first question from the audience – which included many of the world’s leading researchers – was asked by a young man. “You’re famous for thinking outside the box,” he asked. “How you do that?” Lovelock sat thoughtful for a few moments before replying, “What box?”

The story, recalled by conservationist Tim Flannery, typified a scientist who never accepted the intellectual bounds that so many other researchers erected around their studies over the years. For example, the death of Lovelock last week at the age of 103 robs the world of a true scientific maverick. This was a polymath who never accepted a university position, although his academic influence was profound. He pioneered chemistry, exobiology, virology, and atmospheric physics, and as one of the founders of the Gaia Hypothesis — which states that our living planet can be viewed as a single biological system — he became a revered figure in the environmental movement. Life shapes the environment and not the other way around, he argued. At the same time, Lovelock also took on assignments from Shell, Hewlett-Packard and the secret services. In this way, his original thinking graced industry, the green movement, government, and last but not least, the hunt for life on other worlds.

“My job was to bring separate things together and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts,” he once told writer Jonathan Watts. Such an attitude is at odds with the modern academic world, which is all too often occupied by specialists in increasingly fragmented niches.

Crucial to Lovelock’s success as an independent thinker was his role in inventing the electron capture detector – a matchbox-sized device that can measure minute traces of toxic chemicals in the environment. This earned him enough money to gain academic freedom, a liberation from intellectual constraints which he enjoyed with considerable enthusiasm. “As any artist or writer would understand, some of us don’t do our best when directing,” he later explained in his autobiography. Homage to Gaia.

The need for visionary scientists who choose to work independently and who can explore a range of different fields to unveil new intellectual discoveries has never been greater. Not only is modern science dangerously fragmented, it is coming under increasing regulatory pressure from governments and politicians who demand more obedience from the scientists who accept their funding to carry out their research. Lateral thinkers like Lovelock, who look beyond the confines of their laboratories and reject attempts to limit their activities, are becoming a worrying rarity Dioxide atmospheres of Venus and Mars. In the 1970s, however, he discovered that nitrogen and oxygen were dominant on Earth. Along with biologist Lynn Margulis, he argued that early life forms that began extracting carbon dioxide on Earth eventually led to the evolution of a biological system that manipulated the atmosphere and water for its own benefit. Gaia was born.

Gaia was a major influence on the green movement, although Lovelock was suspicious of her claims and aspirations. “Too many Greens not only don’t know science, they hate science,” he argued, comparing it to “a global, overprotective mother figure who cares so much about small risks that she ignores the real dangers”. Such judgment is perhaps a little harsh, although it also reveals an intellectual independence that was the hallmark of a great scientist whose vision and creativity will be sorely missed.

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