James Lovelock, the wayward British ecologist whose work was crucial to today’s understanding of man-made pollutants and their impact on the climate, and who captured the imagination of the scientific world with his Gaia theory, depicting the Earth as a living being , died on Tuesday, his 103rd birthday, at his home in Dorset, south-west England.
His family confirmed the death in an opinion on Twitter and said that until six months ago he was “still able to walk and attend interviews along the coast near his home in Dorset, but his health was deteriorating after a serious fall earlier this year”. .
dr Lovelock’s vast knowledge ranged from astronomy to zoology. In his later years, he became a prominent proponent of nuclear power as a means of solving global climate change and a pessimist about humanity’s ability to survive a rapidly warming planet.
However, his worldwide reputation rested on three main contributions that he developed during a particularly rich decade of scholarly inquiry and curiosity that spanned from the late 1950s to the latter half of the 1960s.
One of these was his invention of the Electron Capture Detector, an inexpensive, portable, extremely sensitive device capable of measuring the spread of toxic man-made compounds in the environment. The device provided the science behind Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, a catalyst for the environmental movement.
The detector also helped lay the foundation for regulations in the United States and other countries that banned harmful chemicals like DDT and PCBs and greatly reduced the use of, and public exposure to, hundreds of other compounds.
Later, his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons — the compounds that power aerosol cans and were used to cool refrigerators and air conditioners — were present in the atmosphere in measurable concentrations led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer.
But he is perhaps best known for his Gaia theory – that the Earth functioned, as he put it, as a “living organism” capable of “regulating its temperature and chemistry to a comfortable steady state.”
The seeds of the idea were planted in 1965 when Dr. Lovelock was a member of the space exploration team recruited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
As an expert on the chemical composition of the atmospheres of Earth and Mars, he wondered why the Earth’s atmosphere was so stable. He theorized that something must regulate heat, oxygen, nitrogen, and other components.
“Life on the surface must take over the regulation,” wrote Dr. Lovelock later.
He presented the theory in 1967 at a meeting of the American Astronautical Society in Lansing, Michigan and in 1968 at a scientific meeting at Princeton University.
That summer, writer William Golding, a friend, suggested the name Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the earth. Mr Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies and other books, lived near Mr Lovelock in Wiltshire, south-west England.
Some scientists hailed the hypothesis as a thoughtful way to explain how living systems affected the planet. However, many others called it New Age Pablum.
The hypothesis might never have gained credibility and penetrated the scientific mainstream without the contributions of Lynn Margulis, a prominent American microbiologist. In the early 1970s and the decades thereafter, she worked with Dr. Lovelock on specific research to support this notion.
Since then, a number of scholarly meetings on Gaia theory have been held, including one at George Mason University in 2006, and hundreds of articles on aspects of it have been published. Mr. Lovelock’s theory of a self-regulating Earth has been considered central to understanding the causes and consequences of global warming.
His Electron Capture Detector was developed in 1957 while he was a research associate at the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, north London. It was announced in the Journal of Chromotography in 1958.
In combination with a gas chromatograph that separates chemical mixtures, the detector was able to measure minute concentrations of chlorine-based compounds in the air. It ushered in a new era of scientific understanding of how the compounds spread, helping scientists identify the presence of tiny amounts of toxic chemicals in soil, food, water, human and animal tissue, and the atmosphere.
In 1969 Dr. Lovelock found out with his electron capture device that man-made pollutants were the cause of smog. He also discovered that the family of persistent man-made compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons were measurably present even in the clean air over the Atlantic. He confirmed the worldwide spread of CFCs during an expedition to Antarctica in the early 1970s and published an article about his findings in the journal Nature in 1973.
dr Lovelock prided himself on his independence from universities, government and corporations, although he earned his living from all of them. He enjoyed being outspoken, outspoken, deliberately provocative, and careless. And perhaps not coincidentally, he was less successful in using his work for financial gain and prestige within the scientific community. The electron capture detector, arguably one of the most important analytical instruments developed in the 20th century, was developed by Hewlett-Packard without royalties or a license agreement with Dr. Lovelock redesigned and commercialized.
And although dr. Lovelock identified the presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, he also argued that at concentrations in the parts per billion range, they posed “no conceivable danger” to the planet. He later called this conclusion “an unnecessary mistake”.
A year after its publication in Nature, Mario Molina of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine published a paper in the same journal that detailed how sensitive the Earth’s ozone layer is to CFCs. In 1995 she and Dr. Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in Germany won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in warning the world about the depleting ozone layer.
“He had a great mind and a will to be independent,” said Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and visiting scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont. “He credibly played a significant role in literally saving the earth by helping to find out that the ozone layer was disappearing. The Gaia theory is his most interesting contribution. As global warming became the biggest problem of our time, Gaia Theory helped us understand that small changes can alter a system as large as Earth’s atmosphere.”
James Ephraim Lovelock was born on July 26, 1919 at his maternal grandmother’s home in Letchworth Garden City, about 30 miles north of London. His parents, Tom and Nell Lovelock, were shopkeepers in Brixton Hill, south London. James lived with grandparents in his earliest years but joined his parents at Brixton Hill after his grandfather died in 1925.
In London he was an underperforming student but an avid reader of Jules Verne and of science and history, which he borrowed from the local library.
dr Lovelock often credited his determined independence to his mother, an amateur actress, secretary, and entrepreneur whom he viewed as an early feminist. His interest in nature came from his father, a nature lover who would take his son on long walks in the countryside teaching him the common names of plants, animals and insects.
In 1939 James enrolled at the University of Manchester, was granted conscientious objector status, which enabled him to avoid military service at the start of the Second World War, and graduated in 1941. Soon after, he was hired as a junior researcher by the Medical Research Council, a government agency specializing in sanitation and transmission of infectious agents.
One of the young people who also joined the research institute was Helen Hyslop, a receptionist. The two married on December 23, 1942, and the first of their four children, Christine, was born in 1944. Another girl, Jane, and two boys, Andrew and John, were later added. In 1949 Dr. Lovelock a Ph.D. in Medicine from the London University School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Helen Lovelock, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died in 1989. He later married Sandra Orchard, an American. They met when she asked him to speak at a conference, he told British magazine The New Statesman in 2019.
to dr Lovelock’s survivors include his wife; his daughters Christine Lovelock and Jane Flynn; his sons Andrew and John; and grandchildren.
dr Lovelock is the author of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979). Another, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009), argued that Earth was rushing to a permanently hot state faster than scientists realize. His autobiography, Home to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist, was published in 2000.
Among his many awards were two of the most prestigious in the environmental community: the Amsterdam Environmental Prize, awarded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Blue Planet Prize, awarded in 1997 and widely regarded as the ecological equivalent of a Nobel Prize .
dr Lovelock caused a stir in 2004 when he declared nuclear power to be the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels, capable of meeting humanity’s vast energy needs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In his final years, he expressed a pessimistic view of global climate change and human ability to prevent an environmental catastrophe that would kill billions of people.
“The reason is that if we didn’t synthesize them, we wouldn’t find enough food,” he told New Scientist magazine in 2009. “Because of this, the cull in this century will be huge, up to 90 percent. The number of people left by the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It’s happened before. There were bottlenecks between the Ice Ages when there were only 2,000 people left. It’s happening again.”