The Observer’s point of view on the genius James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia theory

The Observer’s point of view on the genius James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia theory

The Observer’s point of view on the genius James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia theory

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Three years ago, at a meeting held to celebrate his 100th birthday, scientist James Lovelock was the subject of a rigorous 90-minute interview on stage at the University of Exeter. The first question from the audience, which included a host of world-leading researchers, was asked by a young man. “You’re famous for thinking outside the box,” he asked. “How you do it?” Lovelock sat thoughtfully for a few moments before replying: “What box?”

The story, remembered by conservationist Tim Flannery, was that typical of a scientist who never accepted the intellectual boundaries that so many other researchers have erected over the years around their studies. So Lovelock’s death last week at the age of 103 robs the world of a true scientific maverick. This was a multifaceted man who never accepted a university position, although his academic influence was profound. He was a pioneer of work in chemistry, exobiology, virology and physics of the atmosphere and as one of the creators of the Gaia hypothesis – according to which our living planet can be seen as a single biological system – has become a revered figure in the movement. for the environment. Life shapes the environment and not the other way around, he said. At the same time, Lovelock also took work from Shell, Hewlett-Packard and the intelligence services. In this way, his original thinking has graced industry, the green movement, government and, for good measure, the hunt for life on other worlds.

“My role was to bring the separate things together and make the whole more than the sum of the parts,” he once told writer Jonathan Watts. Such an attitude escapes the modern academy, which too often is filled with those who specialize in increasingly fragmented niches.

Central to Lovelock’s success as an independent thinker was his role in the invention of the electron capture detector, a matchbox-sized device capable of measuring minute traces of toxic chemicals in the environment. This earned him enough money to achieve academic freedom, a liberation from intellectual constraint that he relished with considerable enthusiasm. “As any artist or novelist would understand, some of us don’t produce the best when we’re direct,” he later explained in his autobiography of him. Tribute to Gaia.

The need for visionary scientists who choose to work independently and who can explore a range of different fields to reveal new intellectual insights has never been more acute. Modern science has not only become dangerously compartmentalized, it is also under increasing regulatory pressure from governments and politicians seeking greater submission to those scientists who accept their funding to carry out their research. Nonconformists like Lovelock who look beyond the confines of their labs and who reject attempts to restrict their activities are becoming a worrying rarity. An example of Lovelock’s wide-ranging thinking is provided by his studies of him, while working for NASA, of the hard, carbon dioxide atmospheres of Venus and Mars. In contrast, nitrogen and oxygen dominate on Earth, he noted in the 1970s. Together with biologist Lynn Margulis, he argued that the first life forms that began extracting carbon dioxide on Earth eventually led to the evolution of a biological system that manipulated the atmosphere and water to its advantage. Gaia was born.

Gaia had a great influence on the green movement, although Lovelock was suspicious of her claims and aspirations. “Too many greens not only ignore science, they hate science,” he said, and compared them to “an overly anxious global mother figure who is so concerned about small risks that they ignore the real dangers.” Such a judgment is perhaps a bit harsh, although he also reveals an independence of mind that was the hallmark of a great scientist whose vision and creativity will be sorely lacking.

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