Unlocking James Lovelock: More than a maverick

Is the inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis really such an outsider?

April 14, 2014
James Lovelock tinkering away in his Devon studio. Photo: Science Museum.
James Lovelock tinkering away in his Devon studio. Photo: Science Museum.

James Lovelock tinkering away in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. © Science Museum

If there’s one thing mavericks share in common, it’s that they contrive or refuse ever to admit that they’re wrong about anything. By this measure, the title of the new exhibition at the Science Museum in London–Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick–does James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia Hypothesis, a disservice. Cooked up with microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, the controversial Gaia hypothesis posited that both organic beings and inorganic components of the Earth have evolved together as a single, living self-regulating system.

When I spoke to Lovelock on the eve of the opening of the exhibition on 9th April, he admitted almost merrily that his earlier, dire warnings about the impending collapse of the population, and perhaps of civilization, because of global warming were over the top. Things look grim, he says, but not that grim. This is because we now understand that there are natural processes and systems, such as the immense capacity of the oceans to absorb heat, that might buffer us against the worst-case scenarios of the effects of increasing amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The fact is, Lovelock explained, it is really no big deal for him to admit to a mistake, for who is going to reprimand him, an independent scientist beholden to no one?

But perhaps Lovelock is also so ready to admit to the occasional error—here more of judgement and foresight rather than science—because time has shown him to be right about a good deal else. And he’s no stranger to accusations that he is wrong, which is where that “maverick” label comes from: by some standards, all this label means is that some famous people have disagreed with you. In the early days of the Gaia hypothesis, evolutionary biologists in particular were queuing up to disagree with him, often in such vituperative terms that the arguments were evidently not about science alone. John Maynard Smith, an architect of the neo-Darwinist theory of evolution that married Darwin’s natural selection to modern genetics, denounced Gaia as an “evil religion,” thinking that Lovelock’s talk of “goals” and “purposes”—which seemed unexceptional to him as an engineer—went against the central (and perfectly true, as far as all evidence indicates) tenet of evolution that it has no direction or aim.

So is Lovelock right or wrong? An exhibition like this invites us to see him as the outsider whose theories have now been vindicated and accepted by the scientific establishment. But the real story is much more interesting than that. While the objections of the biologists were not without force, the Gaia hypothesis is not really a theory that can be proved or disproved. It is a way of thinking about the issue of how our planetary environment came into being and maintains itself. Lovelock was not the first to suggest that these processes might involve interactions between different parts of what we now call the “earth system”—the chemical composition of the atmosphere and chemical reactions of rocks and minerals, say—but no one previously had started to put the whole picture together in an explanation of how the earth “self-regulates” its climate. Inevitably, some parts of that picture were seen clearly, others less so. And in any event, what the Gaia hypothesis consists of has evolved and mutated too much over the years for it to be regarded as an idea that sprang fully formed from its creator’s mind, ripe for experimental testing.

Yet what really marked out Lovelock’s idea as original was the role he asserted for life on earth as a literally vital component of how our planet stabilises its climate in the face of changing circumstances. This was, of course, precisely why he was deemed to be trespassing on the territory of biologists, with neither permission nor the proper training (Lovelock did begin his career in the Medical Research Council, although he was originally a chemist). He argued that biological processes such as plant growth (which withdraws CO2 from the atmosphere) and bacterial dissolution of rocks have a key role in the way chemical elements are cycled between the seas, air, soil and stone, and ice—and in consequence, how climate is determined and changed. There is no real debate now that Lovelock was right about this, although he feels that the acceptance of the earth-sciences community has come only grudgingly and on condition that the disturbingly personified Gaia hypothesis be recast as “earth systems science.”

That doesn’t mean that all these various influences on climate combine to keep it steady and self-regulating in the way our bodies stabilize their temperature, however—which was the essence of the Gaia idea. One of Lovelock’s most concrete proposals about such stabilization, developed with several collaborators and suggesting that plankton release a gas that ends up affecting cloud formation, seems now to have been proved wrong, and some earth-systems scientists say that the Gaia hypothesis in general just doesn’t fit with the evidence.

But it’s because the Gaia hypothesis should arguably be judged more by its fertility and productiveness than by some putative test of right or wrong that fashion designer Vivienne Westwood—a Lovelock supporter who spoke at the gala organised to launch the Science Museum’s project—hit the right note. It isn’t a question of whether someone should be regarded as a scientist or an artist, she said, but of whether or not they are imaginative. Scientists might sniff that one can imagine endless false theories, but real imagination in science is about offering a new way to think about a problem.

However, the most interesting parts of this exhibition, as of Lovelock’s new book A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane, 2014) don’t have anything to do with Gaia or climate change. They are about Lovelock the inventor. This is what makes Lovelock’s career not merely productive and interesting but remarkable. He has invented over a hundred useful devices, including the electron capture detector (ECD) that enabled him to detect small traces of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases in the atmosphere in the late 1960s, leading to a realisation that these widely used industrial reagents were harming the ozone layer. Lovelock also claims to have invented the first microwave oven, which he used to defrost hamsters frozen for experiments during his early stint at the Medical Research Council. Several of these contraptions are displayed in the exhibition, and they have a wonderful Heath Robinson quality that belies their precision and artistry. Lovelock fashioned all of these instruments himself by hand, many in the private laboratory that he set up in Launceston on the Devon border, and proceeds from their sales or patents allowed him to become an independent scientist. This practical side of Lovelock’s imagination is not by any means a sideline: it was because he understood the scientific principles that they worked so well, and the positive feedback between making and thinking is very apparent in his work.

As far as Gaia is concerned, project leader Alexandra Johnson says that an attraction for the Science Museum is that “it’s still a work in progress. There’s still a lot of conversation and dispute and debate happening around it. It is rare that we are able to show this way that scientific ideas get argued and fought over.”