Conversations with James Lovelock, the scientist at the end of the world | James Lovelock

IIn science and life, the reward for a curious mind is to search for one thing and find another more interesting one. This is how James Lovelock, creator of Gaia’s theory, explained the perspective that made him one of the most influential thinkers of the last century and encouraged me to apply the same approach by interviewing him over the past two years for a biography.

What he revealed is that, even beyond the praiseworthy obituaries and tributes that followed his death at the age of 103, there was much more to Jim – and his influence on the modern world – than just about anyone. realized.

Lovelock is celebrated first and foremost for Gaia’s theory, the most holistic way of understanding life on Earth, but the origins of that hypothesis may surprise many of his closest followers. He is known to have worked for the UK Ministry of Defense, but the extent of his role in protecting the population and intelligence services (he only half jokingly described himself as a “Mini Q”) was largely hidden by the Official Secrets Act.

It has been a privilege to have access to such a mind and broad experience that has shown how the history of science is shaped by relationships as much as by the brilliant ideas of a genius.

James Lovelock, 94, with one of his earliest inventions, a homemade gas chromatography device.
James Lovelock, 94, with one of his earliest inventions, a homemade gas chromatography device. Photography: Nicholas.T Ansell / PA

Jim was also funnier, more charming, and kinder than his reputation as a nonconformist loner would suggest. I think the sympathy was part of the reason he agreed to let me write his biography of him. I had taken a step after meeting him for the first time in the summer of 2020 and had been waiting for a response for months. Then, my life was turned upside down by cardiac arrest and I needed three shocks to revive myself.

As I was recovering in a hospital bed, Jim chose the perfect time to say he was looking forward to sharing his life stories with me and added some words of encouragement. “I was also 50 when I had my first heart attack, but I have continued to live beyond 100. There is still a lot of life in you.” He immediately became my inspiration for Life 2.0.

With this beginning, the biographer-subject relationship would always have been somewhat unusual. I was not in the mood – indeed, in any physical condition – to push a provocative line of questions. I just wanted to listen and learn and make the experience for both of us as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. The location certainly helped.

r James Lovelock, with his wife, Sandy, in 2004.
r James Lovelock, with his wife, Sandy, in 2004. Photograph: Tim Cuff / Alamy

Jim, a nature connoisseur who has always preferred quiet, out-of-the-way places free from unwanted distractions, lived with his wife, Sandy, in one of Dorset’s most beautiful and remote locations: a former coast guard cottage a stone’s throw from the gravel. of the beach of Chesil. I stayed in a nearby trailer park or thatched pub and walked along the coast every morning, along the hedges and across the fields to Jim’s house, spent hours talking, and got back in time for a late lunch. In nearly two years, I have gone up and down that slope 34 times.

I have come to see these visits as a form of mutual therapy. For Jim, I suppose it was the last chance to load his life. In his latest book, Novacene, he outlined a theory that in the transition to a world governed by artificial intelligence, energy is increasingly converted into data.

I saw myself as part of that process, recording every word and scanning memories for hidden details. A couple of times I asked Jim how he saw himself transmuted after death. The first time he replied: “To die is to be part of Gaia. All the atoms have mixed with the rest, except for the hydrogen, of course, which escapes into space. “

Later, I posed the question in Novacene’s terms: Would Jim become more a part of the landscape or the ideacape? The latter, he only half jokingly said, “would be up to you”, meaning the biography. He was curious about death, as he was about everything else. When we were taking a walk by the sea, he asked me ironically if I had any awareness after my heart had stopped: “How is it over there?”

James Lovelock pictured with his cats.
James Lovelock pictured with his cats. Director of photography: Martin Argles / The Guardian

He had come close to finding this out many times in his own life. Jim had been treated eight times for skin cancer, had undergone open heart surgery, had lost a kidney, suffered from pneumonia and tuberculosis, and had spent much of his career handling toxins, radioactive substances and explosives. He was also used as a guinea pig for burn and asphyxiation tests during World War II. (The only time Jim experimented with real hamsters was when he froze one and brought it back to life during a cryobiology phase in the 1950s.)

In his later years, Jim’s health has fluctuated. On bad days, he was clearly weaker and relied more on photos and documents. On fine days he entertained me with stories so long and with such energy that I should have stopped, exhausted after nearly four hours. His short-term memory was rebellious, but his memory of names, places, chemicals, physical formulas and dirty limericks from over 50 years ago was amazing.

Talking to Jim meant time travel. I’ve come to see him as a genius scientific version of Forrest Gump, who went through many of the most important scientific events of the 20th century, shaping the world at every turn.

He was part of NASA’s missions to find life on Mars, conducted atomic bomb fallout tests in California, issued some of the earliest warnings about climate disruption, and was the first to discover that man-made gases occur. were accumulating in the stratosphere, which led to a global debate on the ozone hole. He was also a devoted father who entertained his children Gandalf style with custom fireworks and homemade bombs.

Jim was the ultimate multifaceted: a medical doctor who conducted world-leading studies in fields ranging from chemistry and virology to exobiology and atmospheric physics. He has worked for Shell, NASA, Hewlett-Packard, Pye Chemicals, University of Reading and intelligence services, but has managed to be an important environmental thinker as well as an industrialist.

Professor James Lovelock in his laboratory.
Professor James Lovelock in his laboratory. Photograph: Tim Cuff / Alamy

He was at least as much an engineer as he was a theorist. He bought a lathe to build his tools for him in a home workshop that he built in a barn. His invention of the electron capture detector played a key role in the evolution of environmental movement because it was the most sensitive device in the world to measure the accumulation of toxins in soil, water and air.

Jim was modest. “I have never considered myself even vaguely a genius,” he told me, but he looked back at her trajectory in incredulous amazement. “It is an extraordinary life that I have led.”

He saw his true gift in the ability to cross borders and combine fields. “My role was to bring together separate things and ideas and make the whole more than the sum of the parts.”

This put him at odds with many of his contemporaries in academia, who had built careers by specializing in increasingly fragmented niches. “The problem with science is that it’s about less and less,” Jim complained of his epic intellectual battles in the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle.

Their wrath had been provoked by the Gaia hypothesis, a new way of understanding the Earth as a self-regulating system. This was radical in the 1970s and 1980s because it challenged the prevailing neo-Darwinian view that life was shaped by the environment.

Gaia Theory – developed by Lovelock in collaboration with Dian Hitchcock and Lynn Margulis – went further, suggesting that the opposite was equally true: life shapes the environment. The idea that algae and other unattractive little creatures do most of the hard work to maintain the chemical balance of the atmosphere was considered outlandish before Gaia, but it is now a fundamental part of Earth system science.

Jim went one step further in saying that the planet behaved like a living organism, a metaphor that further infuriated neo-Darwinists, but ensured that this more holistic theory spread far beyond the borders of academia to become a principle in new age religions and part of modern popular culture.

He also turned Jim into something of a guru, with an influence that spread to Margaret Thatcher, Václav Havel, Richard Branson and Vivienne Westwood. “Everyone turns to me for guidance on how to save the world, but I’m not sure I can help,” Jim told me. “I can’t be responsible for the whole planet. I do my best.”

Like anyone else, he was a mass of contradictions. At different times over the past 30 years, he has come out as pro and anti-green, and memorably prophesied an impending climate disaster only to blame himself for being too alarmist a few years later.

James Lovelock in his home workshop.
James Lovelock in his home workshop. Photograph: Homer Sykes / Alamy

Towards the end, he was once again filled with forebodings and explored the possibility that the Covid pandemic was a negative feedback mechanism from Gaian to reduce human pressure on the Earth system. More than once he has compared Gaia’s troubles to his own health: “I can understand you old lady. We are both in similar trouble. “

I will miss those conversations enormously. Although Jim often gently mocked the Guardian’s values ​​and I sometimes rolled my eyes at his more conservative views of him, I loved his company and was grateful for the hospitality he and Sandy had provided. This wasn’t my usual journalistic practice, but the closer we got, the more it opened up on sensitive topics.

At this stage in life, he said, he could tell me things he had never told anyone before, which meant a much more personal and political perspective on how scientific history is made. We never fought. I was there to ask, to listen and, above all, to try to understand how Jim became Jim and how his opinions have evolved.

Curiosity drove him. The precision delighted him. But it was never just science and data, but intuition and feeling. This is why Jim’s theories continue to have charm and relevance. One of his favorite poems about him was Philip Larkin’s An Arundel Tomb. He could recite the last verse, which now seems more appropriate than ever.

Time has transfigured them into

Falsehood. Fidelity of stone

They hardly intended it to become

Their final coat of arms is to be tried

Our almost true instinct:

What will survive of us is love.

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