A tribute to my friend James Lovelock

30 July 2022

3:00 PM

30 July 2022

3:00 PM

The scientist James Lovelock died this week at the age of 103. He was best known for his Gaia theory, which found that Earth is a self-regulating system formed by the interaction between living organisms and their surroundings. Here, Bryan Appleyard, who co-wrote ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’ with Lovelock, pays tribute to his friend:

James Lovelock died this Tuesday on his 103rd birthday. I had known him since 1988 when I met him at his then home in Devon. He later moved to Dorset where he lived with his wife, Sandy, in a coastguard’s cottage overlooking Chesil Beach. He loved the landscapes of the west of England. In fact, he was a member of that diminishing tribe known as patriots.

He was born in 1919 in the immediate aftermath of the first world war. His mother, Nell, was determined he would never experience the hell of the trenches so she had him brought up as a Quaker which gave him a legitimate cause to be a conscientious objector when the 20th-century’s second hell broke out in 1939.

The Society of Friends formed his imagination in two distinct ways. First there was the freedom of their teachings.

‘It was different from any other Sunday School I had encountered,’ he told me, ‘Religion played only a small part and it seemed that cosmogony [the study of the origins of the universe] was the subject taught at the school.’

Secondly, Quakerist pacifism mean he had to appear at a tribunal to justify his position as a ‘conshy’. He was moved by the reasoned kindness of the judges who accepted his case and asked only that he did work supportive of he war. At a stroke they made him a lifelong patriot.

This was shown most impressively in his work for the security services from the 1960s onwards – think of him as Q the gadget maker in the James Bond films. This job lasted until he was laid off at 94, possibly a record retirement age for MI5. He was sad to lose the job, but he admitted that ‘you can’t really trust a 94-year-old with national secrets.’

Other than that, from the early 1960s he held no position with any institution. He became an independent scientist, a breed much rarer even than patriots. He could not endure being told what to think or what to do. As a result, he had to become a one-man institution.

‘I became a loner,’ he told me, ‘that is, someone outside the establishment. Somehow the academic establishment no longer accepted me as one of them and almost invariably they failed to quote any of the papers that I have written.’

This explains two startling things I noticed when I first met him at his home in Devon. On the gate was a radioactivity warning sign and the name of the house was Coombe Mill Experimental Station’.

I have to call the place an experimental station,’ he explained, ‘if you’re having a kilogram of radioactive material delivered, it can’t be something like Acacia Road, Finchley. It could lead to terrible mistakes.’

Part of the house was a laboratory and workshop where he designed and built his own instruments – and, indeed, there were radioactive materials involved. Pursuing his own thought and making his own instruments was to lead to his most startling invention and most significant idea, an idea that may be among the most important discoveries of our time.

In the early 1960s Lovelock was in America working for Nasa. They had wanted to search for life on Mars using robotic landers that would dig up samples from the Martian surface. This was expensive and, to Lovelock, wrong-headed. We could, he argued, detect life on Mars simply by examining its atmosphere. Since this was utterly static and dead there could be no life there.

The reasoning behind this insight was momentous. At Coombe Mill he invented and built a device known as the electron capture detector (ECD). He showed me one at that first meeting. It was distinctly unimpressive – a small steel tube with wires attached. If, he explained, somebody in Tokyo poured a chemical on to a towel and shook it in the air, he could, using the ECD, detect traces of that chemical in the air of Coombe Mill two weeks later.

The device was staggeringly sensitive and, as some have suggested, in Lovelock’s hands it saved the planet. For a start it provided atmospheric evidence for Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring which blamed the indiscriminate use of the insecticide DDT for the destruction of wildlife.

But, most spectacularly, the ECD detected chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the air over the South Atlantic Ocean. CFCs were used in refrigerators until they were found to deplete the ozone layer which protects us from damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation. Fridge makers had argued that CFCs were not responsible because they did not disperse throughout the atmosphere. Lovelock first detected them over Ireland. He then hitched a ride on a boat bound for the Antarctic and found CFCs floating about down there. In a spectacular – and unusual – example of international co-operation, CFCs were phased out by the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

The curtain that the ECD had drawn back revealed a new view of the planet. If the Martian atmosphere was dead, Earth’s was most definitely not. It was unstable, in constant change. How could this be? What was the force keeping the atmosphere in equilibrium and our species alive? By rights we should never have existed, the sun’s heat constantly increases and should have sterilised the planet long ago.

Historically our view of Earth was defined by two disciplines – geology and biology. Darwin had triumphantly unveiled the nature of the biological processes of life but his picture was incomplete. What Lovelock realised was that these disciplines could not so easily be separated. They were joined together in a four billion year old dance, life constantly changing the planet to suit its own device.

This is the Gaia Hypothesis – the novelist William Golding had suggested the title to Lovelock. This had serious consequences for its reception; it encouraged the view that this was airy-fairy nonsense. It was dismissed by many, notably Darwinists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, as mysticism, bad science or even quasi- religious claptrap. I was, indeed, baffling on first contact; I left Coombe Mill after our first meeting in a state of incomprehension until a few months later when the sheer obviousness of the idea burst in on me. It was, I realised, the sheer simplicity of the idea that made it hard to grasp. As was once said of the poet William Blake, Lovelock possessed the simplicity of genius.

Gaia was announced in an article in the New Scientist in 1975. ‘Consider the following propositions,’ Lovelock wrote in partnership with Sidney Epton, ‘1. Life exists only because material conditions in Earth happen to be just right for its existence; 2. Life defines the material conditions needed for its survival and makes sure they stay there.’

It was too much for most scientists in their institutional silos to accept. But many sceptics realised their mistake in 1983 when Lovelock, with atmospheric scientist Andrew Watson, devised a thought experiment – Daisyworld.

Imagine a planet orbiting a star whose heat output varies. Only two organisms exist on this planet – black daisies which absorb light and warm the planet and white daisies which reflect light and cool the planet. When temperatures increase white daisies have a selective advantage and their numbers increase and the temperature falls. When temperatures fall too low, black daisies increase. Scale that up to include billions of animal and plant species and Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, emerges in all her glory.

Lovelock once said Daisyworld was his proudest invention – it showed ‘how self-regulation could be a property of a planetary system and results from the tight-coupling the biological and physical evolution.’ Tight-coupling says it all; there was no mysticism or spilt religion, just hard science.

The Earth could reasonably seen as a single organism. But it has also to be seen as our only home. Here we stand and here we stay. Fantasies of escaping into the vastness of space are absurd. Elon Musk dreams of colonies on Mars and wants to die there ‘just not on impact’ to which Lovelock caustically responded, ‘Martians conditions suggest death on impact might be preferable.’ He did not believe life would be found elsewhere in the cosmos.

Gaia is now our world view, embedded, often unacknowledged, in Earth sciences and in our imaginations. But Lovelock remained a loner to the end. He knew that our own ingenuity could lead us to folly and he disliked the Greens, primarily for their perverse and misguided rejection of nuclear power.

His feelings about humanity’s future have wavered from intense pessimism to guarded optimism. I helped him finished his last book, Novacene, in which he suggested hyper-intelligent cyborgs could save us from the ravages of global warming. But, to the end, he became more gloomy. He was appalled by our inability to reduce carbon emissions – there are limits to Gaia’s power to compensate – and he suspected ever-increasing population growth would lead to mass starvation.

I have here only scratched the surface of his genius. I have struggled throughout to speak of him in the past tense – I cannot quite believe he has gone. I remember him as an impish, smiling man who could silence a dinner table full of intellectuals with a sentence but who would listen carefully to everything that was said to him.

His independence from any institutional bias meant he was ready to consider any idea, any possibility. The philosopher John Gray, another good friend of Jim’s, described his mind as a mosaic – ‘a pattern of ideas surfaces in his mind and shows the way forward.’ This made him as much of an artist as a scientist and, indeed, the myriad implications of Gaia suggest a work of art as much as a scientific hypothesis.

Sandy, his wife, emailed me to confirm his death and added, ‘You were one of his favourite people’. I wept. Possessed of a genius of essential simplicity, he was a great patriot, a great artist, a great Englishman and Gaia’s greatest friend. And, unbelievably, he was a friend of mine.

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