James Lovelock

ISF interview with James Lovelock


Scientist, inventor, author and centenarian, Dr James Lovelock is best known for developing the Gaia hypothesis. The theory has gradually gained ground as the best explanation we have of the multi-dimensional way both living and non-living parts of Earth interact to create a single organism. The hypothesis asserts that the Earth, through multiple regulatory mechanisms, maintains the range of equilibrium conditions needed for itself to thrive. ISF caught up with him at his home on the south coast of England — and presented him with a 2019 Award for Human Achievement.

Dr James Ephraim Lovelock was born over a hundred years ago, on 26 July 1919. He started straight from school working in a photographic lab – which he states gave him a great background in accuracy and being able to make his own equipment – before getting a degree in chemistry. He later obtained a PhD in medicine. James Lovelock began his career performing cryopreservation experiments on rodents, including successfully thawing frozen specimens. His methods were influential in the theories of cryonics used to this day (in the cryopreservation of humans). His work led to an interest in designing very fine instrumentation. He invented the ECD – the electron capture detector – a device that was far smaller and more sensitive than any other device at that time. Using it, he became the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, which ultimately led to the discovery of the significance of the ozone hole. His instruments have been used on missions to Mars, and it was while designing scientific instruments for NASA that he developed the Gaia hypothesis, which has gradually gained ground as the best explanation we have of the multi-dimensional way both living and non-living parts of Earth interact to create a single organism. The hypothesis asserts that the Earth, through multiple regulatory mechanisms, maintains the range of equilibrium conditions needed for itself to thrive.

1. How did the Gaia theory get its name?

It was Bill Golding, author of Lord of the Flies and other famous books, a near neighbour of mine in a village in Wiltshire, who said ‘If you’re going to have a big idea like that you’d better have a proper name, and I suggest you call it Gaia.’

And we walked on, this was during a country walk, we walked on for twenty minutes and I thought he meant Gyre – a big whirl, you know, a circular process – but he said ‘Oh, no, no, I mean the Goddess, the Mother of the Earth.’

2. Why do you call yourself an engineer and not a scientist?

Science is perhaps too academic in many ways, too detached from the world in practice, and that is why I call myself an engineer. It’s because I’m interested in making things, in things that work, that are part of the system. I think most people think of engineering as the heavy stuff, pumps and bridges – that’s civil engineering – they don’t think of it as an integral part of what ordinary people call science. It’s hands on. People talk about things being ‘hands on’, but if you make things with your hands you get a great pleasure from doing that, a real pleasure of creation which you don’t often get from writing. That’s also a creation but it’s much harder; however doing things with your hands, turning something on a lathe… it’s quite a thrill!

3. What stories inspired you when you were young?

My mother, despite her passion for smoking, was very fond of education and every week would go down to the Brixton Library (we lived in Brixton, South London, and it was as rough a place then as it is now… a good old place to grow up in). I used to go with her and took out science fiction books by Jules Verne, but the one that really carried me away was H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine – what a fantastic story for me as a child! I mean, I didn’t go into the workshop and try and make a time machine. I would have liked to do it but I didn’t have a clue about where to start!

4. What made you become a Quaker?

Like any young child I had no thoughts at all about religion except what the adults told me, and I didn’t always believe them. I was turned off religion very strongly when my parents, who were perhaps a little selfish, used to take holidays wandering around the art places of Europe, and didn’t want to take a little boy with them. So I was sent to some not very nice farms in Britain (I supposed they advertised in the newspaper that they would take people) and these [farm] people were deeply religious in a very stupid, old fashioned way. I remember one place I went to in Cambridgeshire, near Ely, called Blackbank – it was well named – and there the whole family had to go to a non-conformist church three times every Sunday. Early in the morning – and you had to be dressed in your best clothes, no books were allowed to be read except the Bible, and you couldn’t go for a walk except to the church – and so the whole day was tied up in the practice of a rather silly and primitive religion. You had to sit in this darned chapel and listen to the rantings of some incoherent speaker… no, it really turned me off for good. But at the same time my mother was determined to get me in as a member of the Quakers' church solely because in that way she thought I would not be called up in the next war, which she knew would come – I think most people did in those days. So she enrolled me with the Quaker church in Brixton… I think if she’d only known, she wouldn’t have done: they didn’t do religion at all, it was all cosmology! Most fascinating – I loved it – if this is religion show me more! And I got it from them, and, so, I became a Quaker.

5. What was your experience of university?

My subject, chemistry, as taught at that university, was so dull that I used to go off and wander and sit in on economics lectures, or history, or literature – anything that was different. I learnt quite a lot at the university at those alternative sources, but of course it got me a bottom second class degree! But it didn’t matter!

6. What advice would you give to young people today regarding education?

Your instinct, your nature tells you what to do. I don’t have all that much faith in teaching. I think you’ve got to let children find their own sort of way. And just because the person can’t act like I did and be an engineer and invent things doesn’t mean they are any less important than I am. They can contribute in all sorts of other ways. And they do.

7. What do you think of higher education today?

I think it’s time for the dissolution of the universities. They are very like the church was way back in the Middle Ages. They’ve got too comfortable and cosy and they’re not really doing their job.

8. What are your thoughts on climate change?

I believe, along with some of our good astronomers like the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, who see the sun as having a limited life span, that the problem is the sun automatically gets hotter as it burns fuel. It’s a strange sort of fire but it’s true of almost all nuclear fires – the more fuel it burns the hotter it gets, and this causes it to burn more fuel and so on. And because of that, as the sun gets hotter every year, you can’t avoid global warming – it’s built into nature. If there weren’t any humans putting gas into the air it would still mean the Earth had a limited lifespan. There is nothing that life can do on Earth by ordinary biological processes to stop the sun’s workings. The sun is too far away, too hot, there is no way we could interfere with the internal workings of the sun. Global warming is an inevitability. Now we want it to happen a long time ahead – but if we go on putting CO2 and other gases into the air it will happen a lot sooner than we want. We could stop it tomorrow if we wanted, but the problem is nearly all of us have pensions (nearly everyone who works has a pension) and these are dependent on funds that are invested largely in the carbon industries, and you can’t close that down without having disastrous economic consequences. This would lead to a loss of votes for political parties, so there is no reason to change. What happens – which is very sad – is the opposite: a lot of the money is spent on propaganda damning nuclear energy.

9. How did your way of practising science affect Gaia Theory?

I’d always been brought up by my scientist mentors to not be over sure about anything. If you have a theory, don’t try and think it’s right… try and destroy it – that is much the better way of getting ahead. Look at all the criticisms carefully, check all of them, they may be right. That was my attitude. It’s a little depressing but nevertheless I had it, I used it, and it didn’t really impede me, as the answers to the questions I asked of nature about how it was working turned out to be true nearly every time. The equations modelling Gaia are quite easy; I’ve done it and I’m delighted to have Demis Hassabis – the computer genius who did the Go thing [Hassabis’s Deepmind project was the first to make an AI program to defeat a human player of Go, a feat considered much harder than defeating a chess player] – agree with how I conceived of the problem. He, of his own volition, came and visited one morning a few weeks ago and he agreed entirely with me. The problem with the scientists who rejected Gaia was that they treated it as a one-dimensional problem when it isn’t – it’s multi-dimensional.