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J R Soc Med. 2001 May; 94(5): 253–254.
PMCID: PMC1281465

Homage to Gaia

‘The joy of science lies, for me, in the sense of adventure and the retention of a child's sense of wonder, even to my dotage’ (James Lovelock, 2000)

James Lovelock has, by his own admission, been variously described as ‘the mad scientist’ (by his schoolmates); ‘not a scientist, merely an inventor who makes amateur equipment in his garage’ (by a scientist); and anti-Darwinian (by another scientist). As a child he almost poisoned a fellow six-year-old with deadly nightshade berries; at grammar school he refused to do homework or Saturday sports; he may have devised the microwave oven (primarily for reviving frozen animals but handy for cooking his lunch); and he was invited by NASA to join the first lunar mission.

Yet the numerous inventions and other scientific achievements to which Lovelock can rightly lay claim are dwarfed by his all-encompassing Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock and Gaia are virtually synonymous, and he thereby finds himself linked with the Green movement—not the cosiest of bedfellows when he professes that he has never been wholly on the side of environmentalism. Now in his eighties, this very singular man still enthuses about science and Gaia in the same breath; his wisdom is unconventional and he's peacock proud of it.

Having written extensively about Gaia, he now sets out to write about himself, to explain why the ‘solitary practice of science...is both pleasant and productive’. But Lovelock and Gaia are so tightly conjoined he quickly admits that Homage to Gaia1 is ‘as much about Gaia as it is about me’. The temptation to take another excursion with the Earth goddess is clearly irresistible—which is a shame, because he misses a trick. For one, Lovelock's targets for criticism—narrow-minded academics in general and some biologists in particular—are overly familiar. For another, his story even without Gaia is a remarkable one by any standards; here he is at his literary best, humming and buzzing with an undiminished passion for life and science.

Setting Gaia aside for a while, Lovelock's description of his early years is a poignant commentary replete with wondrous characters. His initial upbringing in Hertfordshire was down to his maternal grandmother—‘a small plump cockney woman endowed with a surfeit of love’—while his parents struggled to establish themselves in the business of selling and framing pictures. He was spoilt and mischievous, encouraged to give his curiosity free reign. The move to Brixton to live behind the family shop came as a profound shock to his six-year-old system. By the age of nine he had built a short-wave radio receiver from instructions in a Christmas hobbies annual and beamed in Pittsburgh and Moscow, which made physics at grammar school distinctly dull by comparison. He nevertheless must have learned something there, all the while disliking it intensely; but he learned rather more from books borrowed from Brixton library. Whatever, he was determined to become a scientist—but on his terms and pursuing his vision.

He began that quest modestly in 1938, as a lab assistant to an independent consultancy covering all aspects of chemistry and photography. Among a memorable collage of experiences, he fondly recalls preparing a quantity of the dye pigment carmine from instructions that began ‘take one hundred-weight of dried cochineal beetles’. At the insistence of the far-sighted proprietor (who also paid the fees), he attended Birkbeck College in the evenings until, in 1939, all London colleges were closed and students were evacuated to other universities. He took the opportunity to study full time in Manchester, where he succeeded in starting in the second year of the university course on the strength of his experience thus far. When he finished 18 months later—‘it is good to have a short spell as a student...the thought of the seven-year stints to a medical degree or a PhD appals me’—he embarked on a career in medical research with the Medical Research Council, largely at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in North London but with spells at the Common Cold Research Unit near Salisbury and elsewhere. Lovelock's preindependence phase clearly brought sufficient variety and freedom to sustain him intellectually for twenty years—perhaps ever so slightly influenced by the need to support his wife and growing family?

He touched upon diseases such as scrub typhus, tuberculosis and the common cold; he invented the argon detector (for use with gas chromatography) and ionization and ultrasonic anemometers; and he pioneered the production of plastic surfaces that prevented blood from clotting (ten years before artery replacements became a clinical reality). And his thoroughly practical bent led him to invent special wax pencils for writing on wet glassware. During a year at Harvard on a Rockefeller travelling fellowship he immersed himself in lipoproteins, and hit upon selling his blood to boost the family finances. On one occasion his restless desire to move departments within NIMR, to try something different, provoked the rebuke ‘if you keep on moving like this you will never be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society’; he was, of course, but almost twenty years later. His self-selected top achievement was the invention in 1957 of the electron capture detector (ECD), that exquisitely sensitive measurer of metabolic compounds and poisons. ECD led him to discover how chlorofluorocarbons were accumulating in the atmosphere, and ultimately to Gaia, thereby changing his world for ever.

By 1960 country living had become more appealing for the Lovelocks than that of the outer metropolis; already owning a cottage in Bowerchalke in Wiltshire, the family sold up in town and decamped. For a while Lovelock lived with his strong-willed mother in London during the week and spent long weekends in the country. It couldn't last; he recalls that in retrospect ‘Gaia was beckoning me away from the security of the civil service’. He felt impelled to make a complete change in his way of life, but wondered whether he had the courage to leave what ‘in many ways was a scientist's dream employment’, where the money would come from, and how he was going to tell his incredulous colleagues that he wanted to work independently. He toyed with writing science fiction and acting as a consultant to various firms but ultimately made the break via a research professorship in Houston focusing on lipids, while commuting monthly to NASA's jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles to find ways of analysing the surface of the moon and then Mars. He stayed for two years, returning to Britain in 1963 to form his own company and realize his dream of independent science.

If this sounds risky it probably was, but he secured lifelines via a contract with Shell (on ways to produce environmentally friendly forms of energy) and continued consultancy with JPL. And so it was that Gaia was born in California in September 1965, out of Lovelock's realization. that ‘the Earth controls its surface and atmosphere to keep the environment always benign to life’. Gaia's complexion has changed somewhat (a lot, say some critics) with the passing years yet overall remains true to the original premise. According to Lovelock himself, the hypothesis is that ‘temperature, oxidation, state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are kept constant, and this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously by the biota’2. A more fanciful description would be ‘the idea that we may have discovered a living being bigger, more ancient, and more complex than anything from our wildest dreams. That being called Gaia is the Earth’3; a more prosaic one ‘the proposal that the whole earth is a self-regulating system that will preserve an environment suitable for life against all threats’4.

Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddness, was the name bestowed on Lovelock's hypothesis in the late 1960s by his then Wiltshire neighbour, the novelist William Golding. And the name itself has been the source of much of the biologists' criticism over the years—as if an appellation from Greek mythology cannot mean serious science—although Lovelock now believes that the objections stem from an ‘instinctive dislike of holistic ideas’. Gaia has unquestionably sustained and stimulated Lovelock, not least throughout a period of family and personal traumas, eloquently described. She has surely aroused scientific scepticism, but passion too—no bad thing, one would think.

In 1976 Lovelock forsook Wiltshire for Devon, where he has lived and worked ever since. The 1990s brought him the ‘sustained joy’ of his second marriage, ‘recognition by the international scientific community through the award of three major environmental prizes’, one literary prize, eight honorary degrees, and a CBE. No mean tally. The epilogue to Homage finds him in contemplative mood, so perhaps he might like to reflect on a tale from James Northcote, a Devonian from yesteryear. Northcote penned a series of fables in the 1800s, one entitled ‘The Parrot and the Singing Birds’, which goes as follows:

‘A parrot flew from his cage into a neighbouring wood, where he criticised the song of the birds around him. At length they besought him to favour them in return: for no doubt his performance was equal to his criticism. The parrot, after due consideration of the request, gravely scratched his head, and made this reply: “Gentleman, I whistle but I never sing”’.

Northcote's comments read thus:

‘Does not this remind one of the elaborate criticisms upon the great works of original genius, which the dull of all times analyse and compare, and contrast and endeavour to subject to systems built absolutely upon the works themselves? Inquire for their own inventions, for what they have added to the stock of genius in the world — the answer is made for them by our parrot: “They whistle, but they never sing”’5.

References

1. Homage to Gaia: the Life of an Independent Scientist. James Lovelock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [396pp; ISBN 0-19-286213-8; £19.99]
2. Lovelock J. The Ages of Gaia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988
3. Miller S. Gaia hypothesis. Accessed 2001 from [http://erg.ucd.ie/arupa/references/gaia.html], original review published 1989
4. Bowler PJ. The Environmental Sciences. London: Fontana, 1992
5. Northcote J. Five Fables. Reprinted at the University Printing Services, Cambridge, 1988

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press