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James Lovelock

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James LovelockJames Lovelock, CH, CBE, FRS (born 26 July 1919) is an independent scientist, environmentalist and futurologist who lives in Devon, England. He is best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment.


James Ephraim Lovelock was born in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, England, but moved to London where he was, by his own account, an unhappy pupil at Strand School.[1] He studied chemistry at the University of Manchester, before taking up a Medical Research Council post at the Institute for Medical Research in London.[2] His student status enabled temporary deferment of military service during the Second World War, but he registered as a conscientious objector.[3] He later abandoned this position in the light of Nazi atrocities and tried to enlist for war service, but was told that his medical research was too valuable for this to be considered.

In 1948 Lovelock received a Ph.D. degree in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Within the United States he has conducted research at Yale, Baylor College of Medicine, and Harvard University.[2]


A lifelong inventor, Lovelock has created and developed many scientific instruments, some of which were designed for NASA in its program of planetary exploration. It was while working as a consultant for NASA that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis, for which he is most widely known.

James and Sandy LovelockIn early 1961, Lovelock was engaged by NASA to develop sensitive instruments for the analysis of extraterrestrial atmospheres and planetary surfaces. The Viking program, that visited Mars in the late 1970s, was motivated in part to determine whether Mars supported life, and many of the sensors and experiments that were ultimately deployed aimed to resolve this issue. During work on a precursor of this program, Lovelock became interested in the composition of the Martian atmosphere, reasoning that many life forms on Mars would be obliged to make use of it (and, thus, alter it). However, the atmosphere was found to be in a stable condition close to its chemical equilibrium, with very little oxygen, methane, or hydrogen, but with an overwhelming abundance of carbon dioxide. To Lovelock, the stark contrast between the Martian atmosphere and chemically dynamic mixture of that of our Earth's biosphere was strongly indicative of the absence of life on the planet.[4] However, when they were finally launched to Mars, the Viking probes still searched (unsuccessfully) for extant life there.

Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, which ultimately assisted in discoveries about the persistence of CFCs and their role in stratospheric ozone depletion.[5][6][7] After studying the operation of the Earth's sulfur cycle,[8] Lovelock and his colleagues developed the CLAW hypothesis as a possible example of biological control of the Earth's climate.[9]

Lovelock was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974. He served as the president of the Marine Biological Association (MBA) from 1986 to 1990, and has been a Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford (formerly Green College, Oxford) since 1994. He has been awarded a number of prestigious prizes including the Tswett Medal (1975), an ACS chromatography award (1980), the WMO Norbert Gerbier Prize (1988), the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for the Environment (1990) and the RGS Discovery Lifetime award (2001). In 2006 he received the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society's highest Award, whose previous recipients include Charles Darwin [3]. He became a CBE in 1990, and a Companion of Honour in 2003.

An independent scientist, inventor, and author, Lovelock works out of a barn-turned-laboratory on the Devon/Cornwall border.


Reconstructed time-series of atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11.[10]

After the development of his electron capture detector, in the late 1960s, Lovelock was the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere.[5] He found a concentration of 60 parts per trillion of CFC-11 over Ireland and, in a partially self-funded research expedition in 1972, went on to measure the concentration of CFC-11 from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic aboard the research vessel RRS Shackleton.[6][11] He found the gas in each of the 50 air samples that he collected but, not realising that the breakdown of CFCs in the stratosphere would release chlorine that posed a threat to the ozone layer, concluded that the level of CFCs constituted "no conceivable hazard".[11] He has since stated that he meant "no conceivable toxic hazard".

However, the experiment did provide the first useful data on the ubiquitous presence of CFCs in the atmosphere. The damage caused to the ozone layer by the photolysis of CFCs was later discovered by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina. After hearing a lecture on the subject of Lovelock's results,[12] they embarked on research that resulted in the first published paper that suggested a link between stratospheric CFCs and ozone depletion in 1974, and later shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work.[13]


First formulated by Lovelock during the 1960s as a result of work for NASA concerned with detecting life on Mars,[14] the Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the earth form a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism.[15][16] Named after the Greek goddess Gaia at the suggestion of novelist William Golding,[11] the hypothesis postulates that the biosphere has a regulatory effect on the Earth's environment that acts to sustain life.

While the Gaia hypothesis was readily accepted by many in the environmentalist community, it has not been widely accepted within the scientific community. Among its more famous critics are the evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, Ford Doolittle, and Stephen Jay Gould — notable, given the diversity of this trio's views on other scientific matters. These (and other) critics have questioned how natural selection operating on individual organisms can lead to the evolution of planetary-scale homeostasis.[17]

Lovelock has responded to these criticisms with models such as Daisyworld, that illustrate how individual-level effects can translate to planetary homeostasis, under the right circumstances.

Nuclear power

Lovelock has become concerned about the threat of global warming from the greenhouse effect. In 2004 he caused a media sensation when he broke with many fellow environmentalists by pronouncing that "only nuclear power can now halt global warming". In his view, nuclear energy is the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels that has the capacity to both fulfill the large scale energy needs of humankind while also reducing greenhouse emissions. He is an open member of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy.

In 2005, against the backdrop of renewed UK government interest in nuclear power, Lovelock again publicly announced his support for nuclear energy, stating, "I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy".[18] Although these interventions in the public debate on nuclear power are recent, his views on it are longstanding. In his 1988 book The Ages of Gaia he states:

"I have never regarded nuclear radiation or nuclear power as anything other than a normal and inevitable part of the environment. Our prokaryotic forebears evolved on a planet-sized lump of fallout from a star-sized nuclear explosion, a supernova that synthesised the elements that go to make our planet and ourselves."[11]

In The Revenge of Gaia[19] (2006), where he puts forward the concept of sustainable retreat, Lovelock writes:

"A television interviewer once asked me, 'But what about nuclear waste? Will it not poison the whole biosphere and persist for millions of years?' I knew this to be a nightmare fantasy wholly without substance in the real world... One of the striking things about places heavily contaminated by radioactive nuclides is the richness of their wildlife. This is true of the land around Chernobyl, the bomb test sites of the Pacific, and areas near the United States' Savannah River nuclear weapons plant of the Second World War. Wild plants and animals do not perceive radiation as dangerous, and any slight reduction it may cause in their lifespans is far less a hazard than is the presence of people and their pets... I find it sad, but all too human, that there are vast bureaucracies concerned about nuclear waste, huge organisations devoted to decommissioning power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide."

Climate and mass human mortality

James LovelockWriting in the British newspaper The Independent in January 2006, Lovelock argues that, as a result of global warming, "billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable" by the end of the 21st century.[20] He has been quoted in The Guardian that 80% of humans will perish by 2100 AD, and this climate change will last 100,000 years.

He further predicts, the average temperature in temperate regions will increase by as much as 8°C and by up to 5°C in the tropics, leaving much of the world's land uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming, with northerly migrations and new cities created in the Arctic. He predicts much of Europe will become uninhabitable having turned to desert and Britain will become Europe's "life-raft" due to its stable temperature caused by being surrounded by the ocean. He suggests that "we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can".[20]

He partly retreated from this position in a September 2007 address to the World Nuclear Association's Annual Symposium, suggesting that climate change would stabilise and prove survivable, and that the Earth itself is in "no danger" because it would stabilise in a new state. Life, however, might be forced to migrate en masse to remain in habitable climes.[21] In 2008, he became a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, which campaigns for a gradual decline in the global human population to a sustainable level.[22]

In a March 2010 interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said that democracy might have to be "put on hold" to prevent climate change.[23] He continued:

"The great climate science centres around the world are more than well aware how weak their science is. If you talk to them privately they're scared stiff of the fact that they don't really know what the clouds and the aerosols are doing...We do need scepticism about the predictions about what will happen to the climate in 50 years, or whatever. It's almost naive, scientifically speaking, to think we can give relatively accurate predictions for future climate. There are so many unknowns that it's wrong to do it."

Ocean Pipes proposal

In September 2007, Lovelock and Chris Rapley proposed the construction of ocean pumps comprising pipes "100 to 200 metres long, 10 metres in diameter and with a one-way flap valve at the lower end for pumping by wave movement" to pump water up from below the thermocline to "fertilize algae in the surface waters and encourage them to bloom".[24] The intention of this scheme is to accelerate the transfer of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the ocean by increasing primary production and enhancing the export of organic carbon (as marine snow) to the deep ocean. At the time the authors noted that the idea "may fail, perhaps on engineering or economic grounds", and that "the impact on ocean acidification will need to be taken into account". A scheme similar to that proposed by Lovelock and Rapley is already being independently developed by a commercial company.[25]

The proposal attracted widespread media attention,[26][27][28][29] although also criticism.[30][31][32] Commenting on the proposal, Corinne Le Quéré, a University of East Anglia researcher, said "It doesn’t make sense. There is absolutely no evidence that geoengineering options work or even go in the right direction. I’m astonished that they published this. Before any geoengineering is put to work a massive amount of research is needed – research which will take 20 to 30 years".[26] Other researchers have claimed that "this scheme would bring water with high natural pCO2 levels (associated with the nutrients) back to the surface, potentially causing exhalation of CO2".[32]


  • Lovelock, James (2000) [1979]. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286218-9. 
  • Lovelock, James; Michael Allaby (1983). Great Extinction. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-18011-X. 
  • Lovelock, James; Michael Allaby (1984). The Greening of Mars. Warner Books. ISBN 0-446-32967-3. 
  • Lovelock, James (1995) [1988]. Ages of Gaia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-393-31239-9. 
  • Lovelock, James (2001) [Gaia Books 1991]. Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-521674-1. 
  • Lovelock, James (1991). Scientists on Gaia. Cambridge, Mass., USA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-19310-8. 
  • Lovelock, James (2005). Gaia: Medicine for an Ailing Planet. Gaia Books. ISBN 1-85675-231-3. 
  • Lovelock, James (2000). Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860429-7.  (Lovelock's autobiography)
  • Lovelock, James (2006). The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Santa Barbara (California): Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9914-4. 
  • Lovelock, James (2009). The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can. Allen Lane. ISBN 978-1846141850. 

Portraits of Lovelock

The National Portrait Gallery collection has two photographic portraits of James Lovelock by Nick Sinclair (1993) and Paul Tozer (1994).[33] The archive of the Royal Society of Arts has a 2009 image taken by Anne-Katrin Purkiss.[34] Lovelock agreed to sit for sculptor Jon Edgar in Devon during 2007, as part of The Environment Triptych (2008)[35] along with heads of Mary Midgley and Richard Mabey. A bronze head[36] is in the collection of the sitter and the terracotta is in the archive of the artist.

See also

  • Gaia Symphony


  1. ^ Homage to Gaia
  2. ^ a b Biography of James Lovelock, Association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy. Retrieved 30 October 2007.
  3. ^ James Lovelock: The green man, Ian Irvine, The Independent, 3 December 2005. Retrieved 14 May 2008.
  4. ^ Lovelock, J.E. (1968). A Physical Basis for Life Detection Experiments. Nature 207, 568-570.
  5. ^ a b Lovelock, J.E. (1971). Atmospheric Fluorine Compounds as Indicators of Air Movements. Nature 230, 379.
  6. ^ a b Lovelock, J.E., Maggs, R.J. and Wade, R.J. (1973). Halogenated Hydrocarbons in and over the Atlantic. Nature 241, 194-196.
  7. ^ Travels with an Electron Capture Detector, acceptance speech for Blue Planet Prize 1997
  8. ^ Lovelock, J.E., Maggs, R.J. and Rasmussen, R.A. (1972). Atmospheric Dimethyl Sulphide and the Natural Sulphur Cycle. Nature 237, 452-453.
  9. ^ Charlson, R. J., Lovelock, J. E., Andreae, M. O. and Warren, S. G. (1987). Oceanic phytoplankton, atmospheric sulphur, cloud albedo and climate. Nature 326, 655-661.
  10. ^ Walker, S.J., Weiss, R.F. and Salameh, P.K. (2000) Reconstructed histories of the annual mean atmospheric mole fractions for the halocarbons CFC-11, CFC-12, CFC-113 and carbon tetrachloride. Journal of Geophysical Research 105, 14285—14296.
  11. ^ a b c d Lovelock, J.E. (1989). The Ages of Gaia. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. ISBN 0-19-286090-9.
  12. ^ F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina (2000-12-07). "CFC-Ozone Puzzle: Lecture". http://www.eoearth.org/article/CFC-Ozone_Puzzle:_Lecture. Retrieved 2007-12-10. 
  13. ^ The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1995 "for ... work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone", Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 9 May 2008.
  14. ^ Lovelock, J.E. (1965). "A physical basis for life detection experiments". Nature 207 (7): 568–570. doi:10.1038/207568a0. 
  15. ^ J. E. Lovelock (1972). "Gaia as seen through the atmosphere". [[Atmospheric Environment (journal)|]] 6 (8): 579–580. doi:10.1016/0004-6981(72)90076-5. 
  16. ^ Lovelock, J.E.; Margulis, L. (1974). "Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere- The Gaia hypothesis". Tellus 26 (1): 2–10. doi:10.1111/j.2153-3490.1974.tb01946.x. 
  17. ^ Dawkins, Richard (1999) [1982]. The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-288051-9. 
  18. ^ Nukes Are Green, Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 9 April 2005. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  19. ^ Lovelock, James (2006). The Revenge of Gaia. Reprinted Penguin, 2007. ISBN 978-0-141-02990-0
  20. ^ a b The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years, James Lovelock, The Independent, 16 January 2006. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  21. ^ Lovelock: "Respect the Earth", World Nuclear News, 6 September 2007. Retrieved 25 July 2009.
  22. ^ "Gaia scientist to be OPT patron". Optimum Population Trust. 26 August 2009. http://www.optimumpopulation.org/opt.media.html. Retrieved 27 August 2009. 
  23. ^ "James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change", 2010-03-29
  24. ^ Lovelock, J.E. and Rapley, C.G. (2007). These ocean pipes could help the Earth to cure itself. Nature 449, 403.
  25. ^ Biological Ocean Sequestration of CO2 Using Atmocean Upwelling, Atmocean. Retrieved 3 October 2007.
  26. ^ a b Scientists propose 'plumbing' method to solve crisis of global warming, Lewis Smith, The Times, 26 September 2007. Retrieved 3 October 2007.
  27. ^ James Lovelock's plan to pump ocean water to stop climate change, Roger Highfield, The Daily Telegraph, 26 September 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  28. ^ Pipes hung in the sea could help planet to 'heal itself', Michael McCarthy, The Independent, 27 September 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  29. ^ How sea tubes could slow climate change, Alok Jha, The Guardian, 27 September 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  30. ^ Cold water on global warming plans, Phillip Williamson, The Guardian, 1 October 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  31. ^ The last green taboo: engineering the planet, Johann Hari, The Independent, 4 October 2007. Retrieved 4 October 2007.
  32. ^ a b Shepherd, J.G., Inglesias-Rodriguez, D. and Yool, A. (2007). Geo-engineering might cause, not cure, problems. Nature 449, 781.
  33. ^ http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person.php?LinkID=mp06519
  34. ^ http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_rsa/3344496740/
  35. ^ authors, various (2008). Responses - Carvings and Claywork - Jon Edgar Sculpture 2003-2008. UK: Hesworth Press. ISBN 978-0-9558675-0-7. 
  36. ^ http://www.jonedgar.co.uk/portrait_james_lovelock.htm

External links


Book reviews

  • Goodbye to All That, Tim Flannery reviews The Vanishing Face of Gaia in The Monthly, June 2009.

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