Because Dr. Lovelock is a man of science, naming the Earth “Gaia” did not sit well with his colleagues. But the doctor had no intention of pleasing anybody; his goal was to make his hypothesis appealing to the public in order to raise awareness about the plight of our environment. While other scientists would have squirmed at naming their theory after a mythical goddess, Dr. Lovelock saw no problem with doing so. Since the mid-1960s when he first introduced the concept, “Gaia” has been an influential entity in the studies that have followed suit. It has also drawn the attention of many environmentalists and “New Age” believers. As far as spreading the word is concerned, Dr. Lovelock succeeded.
Now more than 90 years old, Dr. Lovelock still commands respect as one of the greatest thinkers of our time. Age doesn’t slow him down; if anything, it gives more credence to his claims and inspires people not to let old age deter them from exploring the world and making discoveries. That, in itself, is a great legacy from the creator of “Gaia.”
Perhaps one of the best traits of this erudite scientist is his willingness to accept being mistaken. Scientists often get into trouble when what they say fails to materialize; when it became apparent that his claims about the world’s temperature being too hot for plants to survive were untrue, he admitted over-estimating. His credentials as a scientist do not lie on that claim alone, and any learned person should understand that.
But, apart from “Gaia,” what else has Professor Lovelock done in the course of history? This biography will shed light on the life of one of the most accomplished persons alive today. May you, like us, appreciate his zest for knowledge and take after him in his willingness to contribute to making this Earth more conducive to sustaining life.
Early life: a scientist in the making
James Ephraim Lovelock was born in Devon, England, on 26 July 1919 to working class parents, Tom and Nell. Nell dropped out of school at 13 years old to work in a pickle factory, while Tom was subjected to hard labor in his teens after being caught poaching. He had no education prior to that; fortunately, he was given an opportunity to attend a technical college.
Tom was innately bright. Although he wasn’t well-educated, he was ecologically knowledgeable. He knew the common names of plant, animal, and insect species, and passed on to his young son a love of nature. Every weekend, the father and son would spend their time in the countryside where Tom lived as a kid. It was his father’s curiosity about the world and all the life it harbors that inspired James to explore.
James was a voracious reader, which helped him stay ahead of his class. The family later moved to London where he attended Strand School. Because of his penchant for science, he was called the “Mad Scientist” by his classmates. His gift went unrecognized in school, however, and it was a relatively unhappy phase of his life. It got worse when it became time for him to go to college; he knew his parents wouldn’t be able to afford sending him to school, as much as they wanted to.
For the moment, he had to put off going to school. He took a job as a laboratory assistant to make use of his time and save enough for his studies. He then enrolled in Birkbeck College and studied in the evenings, while he spent his mornings working at a photography firm. That enabled him to attend Manchester University and enroll in the Chemistry program.
In his first year, James was called by his professor after he had solved a complicated equation. He recalls:
"I was amazed and confused but he went on, 'Look at the results of your gravimetric analyses. You have reported exactly the concentrations of bromide ion in the two solutions you analysed. You may not know it, but students almost never get the right answer to gravimetric analyses, and certainly never twice running. There is only one possible explanation: you must have looked up the answers in the class book that the demonstrator foolishly left in the lab.' By then he was in full flood. It took nearly 30 minutes to convince him that I was, after two years' apprenticeship, a professional at this analysis. It was for me a routine task and one I expected to get right. The exchange left us both wondering what university training was really about." (SOURCES: The Independent)
After his first year in college, his grades earned him a full-time scholarship, but it was that same year when the war broke out and all universities were closed in London. He was not called to serve because of his status as a student, but still insisted on being registered as a conscientious objector. He would later be called a “maverick scientist” for his consistent refusal to jump into the bandwagon.
He later changed his mind, upon seeing how harshly his fellow men were treated. Unfortunately, he was turned down because his research was found to be valuable by the government. He worked at a Quaker farm before a recommendation from his professor earned him a Medical Research Council post; there, he embarked on a research study of how to shield soldiers from burns (it was common practice at the time to use animals for the experiments). However, his love for life and nature drove him to spare the poor rabbits’ lives by subjecting himself to the burns. It was “exquisitely painful” at first, but his skin soon grew accustomed to it.
In 1948, he attended the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he completed his Ph.D. studies. Six years later, he was granted a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine at Harvard University. While in the United States, he did research at Yale, Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard University. Between 1958 and 1959, Dr. Lovelock was a visiting scientist to Yale University Medical School.
Dr. Lovelock Works for NASA
In 1956, he invented the “electron capture detector.” According to his biography on his website:
"Its (the electron capture detector) use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment and can be said, along with Rachel Carson's seminal book Silent Spring, to have started the environmental movement.
The same detector was later used to discover and measure the abundance of chlorofluorocarbons and of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere." (SOURCE: James Lovelock)
Because of his invention, scientists were able to begin measuring the presence of chlorofluorocarbon in the environment. This led to further studies of how the ozone layer is being destroyed by the greenhouse effect, and in turn warming up the Earth.
The “Gaia Hypothesis”
Dr. Lovelock was made part of the team which aimed to find out if it’s possible for life to flourish on Mars. His suggestion, simply, was to measure the composition of Mars’ atmosphere and compare it to ours. It was later proven that life cannot thrive on Mars because of its atmospheric properties.
Inspired by his discoveries, he began to see the Earth in a different light. One day, while walking with his good friend and neighbor, William Golding, he mentioned his theory of the Earth being a living organism that is able to sustain life and heal itself. William, being a seasoned novelist, suggested that he call it “Gaia,” the name of the Goddess of Earth in Greek mythology.
It took 14 years before he published his first book, “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.” Before then, however, he was given three NASA Certificates of Recognition for: Gas Chromatograph Interface System and Method, Vapor Phase Detectors, and Combined Carrier Gas Separator and Generator for Gas Chromatographic Systems.
The “Gaia Warning” in Summary
So, how is “Gaia” now? Are we still going to see the Earth as it is many years from now? According to an article James wrote:
“My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.
“The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.
“Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.” (SOURCE: The Independent)
He would later tone down on his so-called “prophecy of doom,” citing a lack of extrapolation as the reason why he over-estimated climate change.
But, for what it’s worth, the “Gaia Theory” enabled the government to create policies that help ameliorate the issue of climate change, which certainly is not going away anytime soon.
Dr. Lovelock’s Stand on Climate Change and Nuclear Power
Being the maverick that he is, Dr. Lovelock sees our efforts to minimize the greenhouse effect by using alternative energy (such as windmills) as futile, mainly because “Gaia” can heal herself and windmills aren’t much help. He is all for nuclear power, as hard as it is to believe since he is an environmentalist.
When asked why he favors nuclear power to windmills, he had this to say:
"Large-scale nuclear power is the only practical way that we have to solve the greenhouse gas problem. Of course we should do everything else as well including renewable fuels, windmills, but we should recognise that these are no substitute." (SOURCE: Ecolo.org)
Furthermore, Dr. Lovelock believes that the waste produced by nuclear plants is minimal. He even went as far as offering his backyard as a waste disposal location, but nobody took him seriously. Dr. Lovelock is now in his nineties and, although he knows enough about the plight of this world to feel sad for the future, he continues to remind people to enjoy life while we are here. If a learned scientist can do that, we must all follow his lead and just live responsibly, one day at a time.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy
- Marine Biological Association
Awards and Achievements
- 1954: Awarded the “Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine” at Harvard University
- 1955: Received the “CIBA Foundation Award for Research in Aging”
- 1956: Invented the “electron capture detector”
- 1958 - 1959: Started as a visiting scientist, Yale University Medical School
- 1960: Started working for NASA
- 1965: Formulated the “Gaia Hypothesis”
- 1972: Received three NASA Certificates of Recognition for: Gas Chromatograph Interface System and Method; Vapor Phase Detectors; and Combined Carrier Gas Separator and Generator for Gas Chromatographic Systems
- 1974: Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
- 1975: Received the “Tswett Medal”
- 1975: Reported the first measurements of methyl chloride in the atmosphere
- 1979: Published “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth”
- 1980: Received an “American Chemical Society Chromatography Award”
- 1985: Received the “Stephen Dal Nogare Award”
- 1986: Received the “Silver Medal and Prize of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory”
- 1986 - 1990: Served as President of the Marine Biological Association (MBA)
- 1988: Received the “World Meteorological Organization Norbert Gerbier Prize” and published “The Ages of Gaia”
- 1990: Received the “Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for the Environment,” the “Rosenstiel Award in Oceanographic Science” and the “Amsterdam Prize for the Environment” by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1990: Became a Commander of the British Empire (CBE)
- 1991: Published “Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine”
- 1994: Started as an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford
- 1996: Received the “Nonino Prize” and the “Volvo Environment Prize”
- 1997: Received the “Blue Planet Prize”
- 2000: Received the “Goi Peace Prize” and published “Homage to Gaia”
- 2001: Received the “Royal Geographical Society Discovery Lifetime Award”
- 2003: Became a member of the “Companions of Honor”
- 2006: Received the “Wollaston Medal” and published “The Revenge of Gaia”
- 2009: Became a patron of “Population Matters”
- 2012: Appeared on the Radio Four series “The Life Scientific”
- Co-developed the “CLAW hypothesis”
- Claimed to have invented the microwave oven
- Developed “Sustainable Retreat”
- Invented the “palladium transmodulator,” a tracer method for mass transport measurements in the atmosphere and oceans, and the “argon detector”
- Authored more than 200 scientific papers
- Applied for more than 40 patents
- 1982: University of East Anglia
- 1988: Plymouth Polytechnic (now Plymouth University)
- 1988: Exeter University
- 1991: Stockholm University
- 1993: University of Edinburgh
- 1996: University of Kent
- 1996: University of East London
- 1997: University of Colorado, Boulder (USA)
Wikipedia (Gaia hypothesis)
Wikipedia (James Lovelock)
JamesLovelock (Significant scientific contributions)
JamesLovelock.org (Curriculum Vitae)
New Statesman (James Lovelock: A man for all seasons)
The Guardian (How James Lovelock introduced Gaia to an unsuspecting world)
Ecolo.org (Detailed biography of James LOVELOCK)
BBC.co.uk (Gaia creator rows back on climate)
The Independent (James Lovelock: The green man)
Ecolo.org (Transcript of an online chat with James Lovelock)
Daily Mail ('I made a mistake': Gaia theory scientist James Lovelock admits he was 'alarmist' about the impact of climate change)
The Independent (James Lovelock: The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years)