James Lovelock, the Prophet

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To escape the grime of urban life, Lovelock's father often took him on long walks in the countryside, where he caught trout by hand from the streams and gorged on blueberries. The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative effect on him. "It's where I first saw the face of Gaia," he says now.

By the time Lovelock hit puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics. But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became a conscientious objector. In his written statement, he explained why he refused to fight: "War is evil."

Lovelock took a job at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where one of his first assignments was to develop new ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how viruses are transmitted – and shagging nurses in first-aid stations while Nazi bombs fell overhead. "It was a hard, desperate time," he says. "But it was exciting! It's terribly ironic, but war does make one feel alive."

As a result of his research in the bomb shelters, Lovelock ended up inventing the first aerosol disinfectant. A few years later, as a pioneer in the field of cryogenics, he became the first to understand how cellular structures respond to extreme cold, developing a means to freeze and thaw animal sperm – a method still in use today. "Thanks to Lovelock," says biologist Lynn Margulis, "they don't have to send the entire bull to Australia."

But Lovelock's most important invention was the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD. In 1957, working at his kitchen table, Lovelock hacked together a device to measure minute concentrations of pesticides and other gases in the air. The instrument fit into the palm of his hand and was so exquisitely sensitive that if you dumped a bottle of some rare chemical on a blanket in Japan and let it evaporate, the ECD would be able to detect it a week later in England. The device was eventually redesigned by Hewlett-Packard: If Lovelock had retained the patent, he would have been a rich man. "Jim has never cared much for money," says Armand Neukermans, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and old friend of Lovelock, "except to buy himself freedom as an independent scientist."

As it turned out, Lovelock's invention roughly coincided with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides like DDT. By the time her book appeared, scientists were already using the ECD to measure pesticide residue in the fat of Antarctic penguins and in the milk of nursing mothers in Finland, giving hard evidence to Carson's claims that chemicals were impacting the environment on a global scale. "If it hadn't been for my ECD," Lovelock says, "I think critics in the industry would have dismissed the whole thing as wet chemistry – 'Oh, you can't measure this stuff accurately, can't extrapolate.' And they would have been right."

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A decade later, Lovelock made an even more important discovery. In the late 1960s, while staying at an isolated vacation house in Ireland, he took a random sample of the haze that drifted into the area and found it laced with chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs are man-made compounds used as a refrigerant and as a propellant in aerosol cans – a sure sign of man-made pollution. If CFCs are in remote Ireland, Lovelock wondered, where else might they be? Hitching a ride on a research vessel for a six-month voyage to Antarctica, he used a jury-rigged ECD to detect the buildup of CFCs in the atmosphere. But Lovelock failed to grasp the danger that they posed; two other scientists won the Nobel Prize for correctly hypothesizing that CFCs would burn a hole in the stratosphere, allowing dangerous levels of ultraviolet light to reach the Earth. As a result, CFCs were banned. "If Lovelock hadn't detected those CFCs," says Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, "we'd all be living under the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape that poisonous sun."

If you type "Gaia" and "religion" into Google, you'll get 2,360,000 hits – Wiccans, spiritual travelers, massage therapists and sexual healers, all inspired by Lovelock's vision of the planet. Ask him about pagan cults, though, and Lovelock grimaces – he has no interest in soft-headed spirituality or organized religion, especially when it puts human existence above all else. At Oxford, he once stood up and admonished Mother Teresa for urging an audience to take care of the poor and "leave God to take care of the Earth. "As Lovelock explained to her, "If we as people do not respect and take care of the Earth, we can be sure that the Earth, in the role of Gaia, will take care of us and, if necessary, eliminate us."

Lovelock came up with the Gaia theory during a rough time in his life. In 1961, he was forty-one and working at a research center in London. It was a good job, decent pay, plenty of freedom, but he was bored. He had four kids at home, including John, who was born with a birth defect that left him brain-damaged. In addition, Lovelock's mother – cranky, demanding, aged – was driving him nuts. He smoked, he drank. Today, we'd call it a midlife crisis.

One day, a letter from NASA arrived in Lovelock's mailbox, inviting him to join a group of scientists who were about to explore the moon. He had never heard of the space agency – but within a few months he had dumped his job, packed up the family and moved to America to join the space race. Before long, though, he concluded that, scientifically speaking, the moon wasn't a very interesting place. The real excitement was Mars. "With the moon, the question was, is it safe for astronauts to walk on the surface?" Lovelock recalls. "With Mars, the question was, is there life there?"

Lovelock's colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock, as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere? If life were present, he reasoned, the organisms would be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere (such as oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life on Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were different, the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to detect. Sure enough, when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an analysis of Mars, they discovered that the atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium – suggesting that there had been no life on the planet.

But if life creates the atmosphere, Lovelock reasoned, it must also, in some sense, be regulating it. He knew, for example, that the sun is now about twenty-five percent hotter than when life began. What was modulating the surface temperature of the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded. When the Earth heats up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise, warming the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as superorganism was born.

The idea was not entirely new: Leonardo da Vinci believed pretty much the same thing in the sixteenth century. But Lovelock was the first to assemble all the existing thinking into a new vision of the planet. He soon quit NASA and moved back to England, where his neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, suggested that he name his theory after Gaia, to capture the popular imagination. When established scientific journals refused to touch his ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. "The Gaia hypothesis," he wrote, "is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here." Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the "depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling driverless and purposeless around an inner circle of the sun."

Hippies loved it. Darwinists didn't. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion." In their view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection, then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets. How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined purpose. In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very close to God.

But that was not what Lovelock had in mind. Large systems, in his view, don't need a purpose. To prove it, Lovelock and a colleague devised a simple, elegant computer model called Daisyworld, which used competing fields of daisies to show how organisms evolving under rules of natural selection are part of a self-regulating system. As the model planet heats up, white daisies thrive, reflecting more sunlight; that, in turn, lowers the temperature, which favors black daisies. Working together, the flowers regulate the temperature of the planet. The daisies are not altruistic or conscious – they simply exist and, by existing, alter their environment.

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