“crackpots” who were right 8: James Lovelock

James Lovelock is the first scientist in this series who is still alive. This also means that some of his work remains controversial, but a great deal of his research that was originally attacked is now widely accepted.

As a child, Lovelock was fascinated by science and read many books about physics and chemistry at the library. His school life was not very happy and his teachers did not rate him very highly. Towards the end of his secondary schooling he took part in a written test on general knowledge and came top. His teachers were indignant.

Although he was interested in a broad range of science topics he went on to study chemistry at university because he had a form of dyslexia that made it difficult for him to succeed in more mathematical subjects such as physics. He went on to work for the Medical Research Council and gained a doctorate in medicine in 1948. He invented a number of detection devices including the electron capture detector which made it possible to detect very small amounts of certain chemicals in the atmosphere. Although he has at times worked for various institutions and universities he has done most of his research as an independent scientist funded by revenues from his inventions.

Working from his home laboratory, Lovelock decided to investigate the effects of human pollution on atmospheric conditions such as haze. He used his electron capture detector to measure concentrations of CFC compounds in the atmosphere and correlated the results with conditions of visibility,finding a strong relationship. Because CFCs have no natural origin this demonstrated a clear link between pollution and its effects on the weather. The work drew attention to the buildup of CFC’s in the atmosphere which nobody else had measured before Lovelock. It was then realised by others that CFC gases were harming the ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet radiation and a worldwide ban on the substances was put in place preventing a natural disaster. In 1974 Frank Rowland and Mario Molina were awarded the Nobel prize for this discovery. Once again we see how the most independent thinkers seem to make discoveries that lead to Nobel Prices for others who work in a more institutionalised environment. 

 Lovelock established a good reputation through his work and was called on by NASA when they wanted to develop tests that would detect life on Mars. Lovelock worked with other scientists on the project but became critical of the approaches others were taking. The director told him he must produce a good test himself or leave the team. He came back with the suggestion that they should measure the composition of the Martian atmosphere because if there was life on Mars it would result in a mixture of compounds that would be hard to explain through inorganic processes. This idea had the benefit that it could be carried out without sending probes to Mars and measurements were soon taken showing that the atmosphere was almost entirely carbon dioxide. It was concluded that there is probably very little or no life on Mars at this time.

It was inspiration from this work that led Lovelock to the hypothesis for which he is now well-known. He suggested that the atmosphere and climate on Earth is not just affected by life, it is actually controlled by it. The temperature of our atmosphere can be controlled by phytoplankton that live in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean. In response to the sunlight they produce chemicals that rise in the atmosphere and increase the cloud levels. This in turns cools the planet. Carbon dioxide levels can be controlled by algae that bloom when there are high concentrations of the gas. This removes the carbon dioxide and deposits it on the seafloor. Even oxygen levels are controlled by vegetation that will burn more frequently when concentrations get too high.

At first Lovelock’s hypothesis did not get much attention so  in 1979 he gave it a catchy name and wrote a popular book about it: “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth” In the book he described the earth as acting like a superorganism that self regulates its systems.  The reaction was probably not quite what he had anticipated. The cause was taken up by New Age thinkers in ways he did not particularly like. Evolutionary scientists such as Dawkins, Gould and Doolittle attacked the idea, saying that it was not consistent with evolution. Lovelock was not anti-evolution and set about more research aimed at showing how the Gaia hypothesis could arise naturally. Eventually he started to receive more support for his work.

Thrity years later scientists now accept that there are strong links between biological systems and the way our atmosphere is regulated by nature, much as Lovelock proposed. The way such systems developed is still open to question. Lovelock went on to suggest that human activity is now upsetting the balance that nature established and this has set the foundations of the environmentalist movement. 

The reaction to Lovelock’s research show how the scientific establishment still reacts negatively to new ideas that go against their accepted views. As he said himself “Nearly all scientists nowadays are slaves. They are not free men or women. They have to work in institutes or universities or government places or industry. Very few of them are free to think outside the box. So when you come along with a theory like Gaia, it’s so far beyond their experience that they are not able to react to it.” For a long time Lovelock and his supporters in science found it hard to get their results published in scientific journals because of the opposition from other scientists. He has called this “wicked censorship

At 86 Lovelock is no longer considered a crank. He is appreciated as the founder of a new area of science investigating the relationship between biological systems and the atmosphere. Without his insight we would have been much slower to understand the negative effects we have been having on our climate through pollution.


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