Letchworth’s James Lovelock at 100 - from Gaia Theory to space exploration

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 March 2020

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

Sandy and James Lovelock

From finding the gas responsible for ozone damage to exploration on Mars and the Gaia theory, Letchworth-born James Lovelock has been a key mind in environmental science for decades. At 100 he’s not slowing down.

The Revenge of Gaia by James LovelockThe Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

James Lovelock's career has been rich, varied and extraordinary. An author, scientist and environmentalist, he sees himself primarily as an inventor. And rightly so, his early innovations were significant, including a device that led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer and another used in NASA's first mission to Mars. But he is best known, through his many books, for his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth should be considered as one living organism. His predictions about climate change and the future of our planet have drawn praise and cynicism in equal measure among environmentalists and scientists the world over.

Now 100-years-old and still working, it was his early years in the newly created Letchworth Garden City that put him on a path of discovery and investigation. James was born in the town in the summer of 1919 to parents he describes as 'staunch socialists'. So staunch, his suffragette mother's political interests drew her to London and James was raised by his grandparents until he was six.

His memories of those early years remain 'sparkling clear,' he says. They include his grandparents' house on Icknield Way and the excitement he felt at seeing the Flying Scotsman arrive at Hitchin station. He remembers playing on Norton Common and walking from pub-free Letchworth to The Three Chimneys in Norton every Sunday with his grandfather. He recalls his memories of the Spirella Building where most of his aunts worked, and how pleased he was to see it still there during a visit to the town in the 1990s. It was a childhood spent among adults.

'From an early age, I was constantly surrounded by adults,' he explains. 'I had very few friends of my own age and would listen in on conversations between adults, who in turn treated me like an adult.'

James Lovelock in his laboratory at home on the Devon- Cornwall border (c) Tim Cuff/Alamy Stock PhotoJames Lovelock in his laboratory at home on the Devon- Cornwall border (c) Tim Cuff/Alamy Stock Photo

Of his father's influence he says, 'He was a highly intelligent man, although he couldn't read or write. For my fourth birthday, my father gave me a box full of odds and ends that I could join together. It was mostly electrical wires, bells and so on. He said to me: "There you are, see what you can make of this".

'I then went around my family asking why two wires were needed to send electricity. Nobody had the answer, so I had to find out myself. That was my first glimpse of science.'

James' official education however did not get off to a flying start. In fact, he describes it as 'disastrous'. 'I attended a school that was either in Icknield Way itself or somewhere close by,' he says. 'A foolish young schoolteacher came in and made a demonstration of all the poisonous plants she could find on Norton Common. I'm afraid my scientific background was already forming in my mind. When she went out of the room, I rushed up to the table, caught hold of some of the plants and tried them on the girls, to see what would happen. Fortunately, somebody came in and caught me. I was expelled from school.'

Things didn't improve after James moved to London to live with his parents. At a grammar school in Brixton he says he refused to do homework 'because I could remember it almost identically. I thought what the hell's the point of doing homework if I can remember it all?'

He admits however to being poor at arithmetic, which he failed in his O level exams. In sharp contrast, algebra was a walk in the park: 'Calculus was a doddle - it was obvious. And as for quantum theory, why worry?'

After leaving school James was apprenticed to a photographic chemical manufacturer. He went on to study chemistry at the University of Manchester. During the Second World War he worked for the National Institute of Medical Research and in the late 1940s received a PhD in medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Detecting global pollution

In the mid-1950s, James created the Electron Capture Detector (ECD) to detect atoms and molecules in gas. According to a 2019 Science Museum article Something in the air: James Lovelock and atmospheric pollution, the machine was 'at least a thousand times more sensitive than any other detector in existence at the time. It was able to detect chemicals at concentrations as low as one part per trillion - that's equivalent to detecting a single drop of ink diluted in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools'.

Using the ECD James was the first to detect the widespread presence of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the air from solvents, fridges, air conditioning units and aerosol sprays. This led to further research and ultimately the discovery of the damage caused by CFCs to the ozone layer.

The same Science Museum article underlines the importance of James' scientific contribution: 'His investigations with the ECD gave us the first indication that human pollution had spread across the globe and revolutionised our understanding of the atmosphere and our environment.' 

First Mars mission

In 1961 NASA recruited James to develop instruments for analysing planetary surfaces and he was the first UK scientist to work on the Viking mission, NASA's first attempt to reach Mars. NASA needed a lightweight mechanism that could be mounted on a small spacecraft to measure chemicals on the surface of Mars and send the results back to Earth. The team would then determine if it was capable of supporting life.

'They had a series of meetings and all sorts of queer-looking separators were demonstrated, but none of them worked. In fact, they were getting desperate and I remember saying, "Do you have any palladium tubes? If you give me a bit, I could do some experiments".'

James persevered until he developed an effective way to take samples on Mars. The news was greeted by cheers from his NASA colleagues.

'It's fun to look out of this window on the right sort of night and see Mars in the sky - and to know I've got two bits of hardware that worked for three months on Mars.'

In 1965, inspired by his time at NASA, James first thought of the Earth as a self-regulating system. The idea evolved in his mind, leading to the formulation of what is now known as Gaia theory - a model of the planet in which the living and non-living parts are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.

In Greek mythology, Gaia is the primordial goddess who personifies the planet - a Mother Earth who gave life to everything and to whom all things return. James has spoken about how the novelist William Golding, a close friend and neighbour, came up with the name: 'You'd better give it a proper name [Golding said]. It's too big a theory to be some scientific acronym, so I suggest you call it Gaia.'

In a 2014 Naked Science interview about the hypothesis, James said, 'We now realise that the Earth does regulate itself and we know quite a bit about all the various systems. You see it's a good theory - it has made no less than 10 predictions that have come true and that's good going for any theory.'

James talks with great urgency about the need for drastic action to halt the damage being done to the environment, although he fears it might now be too late. He has often been held up as a figurehead for the environmental movement, but this does not sit well with him. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia, he talks about how the green movement ends up reflecting 'the demagoguery of the founders'.

'People love movements,' he says. 'They love to belong to something, get together and try to chat about it. But I've never been convinced that they are deeply sincere about their attitude to the green movement. It's more a case of let's get together and try to do something about it, which is not the same thing.'

When it comes to environmental matters, he is clear: 'The problem is the large organisations - government and commercial - that burn coal and oil for power. That is their way of making a living and they are not going to give it up until the last moment. They will do anything to resist any attempt to stop it.

'You only have to read the newspapers to see that some nations have discovered new oil fields and that this is treated as good luck for that nation. We should treat it as a disaster.'

In The Revenge of Gaia James writes he is in favour of nuclear power because he believes renewables are not capable of generating the required energy. Fourteen years on from its publication, he's still pro-nuclear, despite renewables producing more than 33 per cent of power in the UK in 2018.

'You can pretend that the problem is being solved,' he says, 'but we continue to burn oil and coal, and that is what is damaging the world. It is a great threat to us. It has reached a point of such desperation that most of the energy companies are beginning to realise that the end is within sight, not because of the threat to the world, but because they won't have any money coming from it. It will die quietly, but we have to hope that it dies in time, because if it goes on burning carbon, we are doomed. There's not much doubt about that.'

On a brighter note, James has shown that change can be made by an individual, through new practical ideas.

'All you need to do is patent your invention and they [manufacturers] pay you a fee,' he explains. 'If you have five going at one time, this will pay for any research and equipment and income. It's a very practical way of doing science and, as far as I know, I'm the only one who does it. It's not difficult and I've brought into this country 10 times more cash than I've taken from it!'

As the interview draws to a close, James says he has enjoyed sharing his childhood memories of Letchworth and his early scientific explorations. It seems a fitting time to ask one last question that he has a rare perspective on. At 100 he is as fit as a flea and his mind is razor sharp. How does he do it? As he prepares to head off for his daily walk along the Dorset coastline with his wife Sandy, he shares some excellent advice: 'Keep walking - that's the secret to longevity. And keep interested!'

With special thanks to Kevin and Sarah Jones who made this interview possible.

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