The observer’s view of the brilliant James Lovelock, co-creator of the Gaia theory

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Three years ago, at a meeting held to celebrate his 100th birthday, the scientist James Lovelock was the subject of a rigorous 90-minute interview on stage at Exeter University. The first question from the audience – which included a number of world-leading scientists – was asked by a young man. “You’re known for thinking outside the box,” he asked. “How do you do it?” Lovelock sat thoughtfully for a few moments before answering, “Which box?”

The story, recounted by conservationist Tim Flannery, was typical of a scientist who never accepted the intellectual limitations that so many other scientists erected around their studies over the years. Lovelock’s death last week, at the age of 103, thus robs the world of a true scientific maverick. This was a polymath who never accepted a position at the university, although his academic influence was profound. He was a pioneer in chemistry, exobiology, virology and atmospheric physics, and as one of the originators of the Gaia hypothesis – which claims that our living planet can be seen as a single biological system – he became a revered figure in the environmental movement. Life shapes the environment and not the other way around, he claimed. At the same time, Lovelock also took work from Shell, Hewlett-Packard and the intelligence services. In this way, his original thinking graced industry, the green movement, government and, for good measure, the search for life on other worlds.

“My role has been to bring separate things together and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” he once told author Jonathan Watts. Such an attitude flies in the face of modern academia, which is all too often filled with those who specialize in increasingly fragmented niches.

Critical to Lovelock’s success as an independent thinker was his role in the invention of the electron capture detector—a matchbox-sized device that can measure minute traces of toxic chemicals in the environment. This earned him enough money to achieve academic freedom, a release from intellectual constraint that he enjoyed with considerable enthusiasm. “As any artist or novelist would understand, some of us do not produce our best when directed,” he later explained in his autobiography, Homage to Gaia.

The need for visionary researchers who choose to work independently and who can explore a number of different fields to uncover fresh intellectual insights has never been more acute. Modern science has not only become dangerously fragmented, it is also coming under increasing regulatory pressure from governments and politicians seeking more subservience from those scientists who accept their funding to carry out their research. Mavericks like Lovelock who look beyond the confines of their labs and reject attempts to limit their activities are becoming a worrying rarity. An example of Lovelock’s wide-ranging thinking is his studies, while working for Nasa, of the hard, carbon. dioxide atmospheres on Venus and Mars. In contrast, nitrogen and oxygen dominate on Earth, he noted in the 70s. Together with biologist Lynn Margulis, he argued that early life forms that began extracting carbon dioxide on Earth eventually led to the development of a biological system that manipulated the atmosphere and water to their advantage. Gaia was born.

Gaia was a major influence on the green movement, although Lovelock was suspicious of its claims and ambitions. “Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science,” he argued, comparing them to “some global over-anxious mother figure who is so worried about small risks that she ignores the real dangers”. Such a judgment is perhaps a bit harsh, although it also reveals an independence of mind that was the hallmark of a great scientist whose vision and creativity will be sorely missed.

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