The Observer’s take on the brilliant James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia theory

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Three years ago, at a gathering 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 the world’s leading researchers, was asked by a young man. “You’re famous for thinking outside the box,” he asked. “How do you do it?” Lovelock sat thoughtfully for a few moments, before replying, “What box?”

The story, recalled by conservationist Tim Flannery, was typical of a scientist who never accepted the intellectual limits that so many other researchers erected around their studies over the years. Thus, Lovelock’s death last week, at the age of 103, robs the world of a true scientific maverick. This was a scholar who never accepted a university position, although his academic influence was profound. He pioneered work in chemistry, exobiology, virology, and atmospheric physics, and as one of the originators of the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that our living planet can be viewed as a single biological system, he became a revered figure in the environmental movement. . Life shapes the environment and not the other way around, he argued. At the same time, Lovelock also took jobs with Shell, Hewlett-Packard and the intelligence services. In this way, his original thinking honored industry, the green movement, government, and, to a large extent, the search for life on other worlds.

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

Critical to Lovelock’s success as an independent thinker was his role in the invention of the electron capture detector, a matchbox-sized device that can measure tiny traces of toxic chemicals in the environment. This earned him enough money to achieve academic freedom, a release from intellectual restraint that he enjoyed with considerable enthusiasm. “As any artist or novelist would understand, some of us don’t produce our best when directed,” he later explained in his autobiography, Tribute to Gaia.

The need for visionary scientists who choose to work independently and who can explore a number of different fields to reveal new intellectual insights has never been more acute. Modern science has not only become dangerously compartmentalized, but is also under increasing regulatory pressure from governments and politicians seeking greater compliance from those scientists who accept their funding to carry out their research. Mavericks like Lovelock, who look beyond the confines of their laboratories and reject attempts to restrict their activities, are becoming a worrying rarity. dioxide atmospheres of Venus and Mars. Instead, nitrogen and oxygen dominate on Earth, he noted in the 1970s. Along with biologist Lynn Margulis, he argued that the first life forms that began to extract carbon dioxide on Earth eventually led to the evolution of a biological system that manipulated the atmosphere and water for its own benefit. Gaia was born.

Gaia was a major influence on the green movement, although Lovelock was suspicious of her claims and aspirations. “Too many greens not only ignore science, they hate science,” she argued, comparing them to “an overly anxious global mother figure who is so preoccupied with small risks that she ignores real dangers.” Such a judgment is perhaps a bit harsh, but it also reveals an independence of mind that was the hallmark of a great scientist whose vision and creativity will be sorely missed.

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