Digging up a past against the grain

Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist
September 29, 2000

Think "artist" and you probably imagine a solitary individual working alone at home or maybe in a studio. Think "scientist" and you likely bring to mind someone who is part of a team, working in a laboratory, perhaps surrounded by expensive specialised equipment. "Alarm greets the idea of a creative scientist working at home," James Lovelock remarks at the beginning of his frank and engaging memoirs - in the same way that scepticism still greets the idea of creative writing departments in universities.

So ingrained are these stereotypes that I remember feeling a distinct dissonance when Lovelock, during an interview for The THES in 1994, opened the doors of a grotto beside Coombe Mill, his house in the remote Devon countryside, and revealed a well-equipped chemical laboratory and electronics workshop. Had this outbuilding contained easels and paintbrushes, it would have seemed perfectly natural.

Lovelock has undoubtedly had an unusual scientific career, the first part of which was spent within leading research institutions in Britain and the United States, the second working from home as an independent scientist, supporting himself financially as a gifted inventor. Among scientists he is well known for inventing equipment such as the electron capture detector, which is exceedingly sensitive to certain chemicals, most notably DDT and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), at very low concentrations, for which he was made a fellow of the Royal Society and received international environmental prizes. To the wider public, especially the environmentally minded, his Gaia hypothesis is what has made him celebrated - while attracting a mixed response from scientists ranging from delight to derision, with the majority still sceptical.

The key idea behind Gaia is that living organisms do not merely adapt to their physical environment as suggested by Darwin, they also modulate and change their environment. Hence Earth itself can be regarded as a giant self-regulating organism, Gaia (the Greek goddess of the earth), in which life and non-life are tightly coupled as one highly complex system, rather than life being seen as a passenger clinging to a ball of dead rock. For example, Lovelock suggests that the salinity of the ocean is somehow kept below 5 per cent - the maximum concentration for the survival of marine life - instead of rising with the addition of dissolved salts washed off the land, partly through the formation of microbially "raincoated" lagoons of salt on the shorelines of the continents, which are then buried as salt beds.

Perhaps, shorn of its religious-sounding name, the idea of Gaia does not seem particularly controversial, given our general acceptance that humans are damaging the global environment and, most likely, altering the climate. Today's scientific orthodoxy is that atmospheric oxygen is the product of photosynthesis by plants and algae. However, "It is easy to forget," writes Lovelock, "that 20 or 30 years ago serious scientific papers suggested that oxygen came mainly from the photo-dissociation of water vapour in the upper atmosphere of the Earth." In a standard earth-science text, Earth , written in 1973, "there is no mention of life's interaction with the composition of our planet's surface". The general view then was as stated by the authors Frank Press and Raymond Siever: "Life depends on the environments in which it evolved and to which it has adapted." Lovelock's advocacy of Gaia over the past three decades has certainly played a major role in shifting scientific attitudes away from such over-simplifications.

For those who have read his three earlier books on Gaia, Homage to Gaia adds little that is new to the subject. But it gives deep insight into the mind of its author and how his experiences coalesced into the notion of Gaia in the mid-1960s, as well as numerous enlightening and entertaining vignettes of how science was actually done during half of the 20th century, both institutionally - in government laboratories, universities and companies - and as an independent. For Lovelock has successfully worked in all these settings. Even more important, he has worked effectively across scientific disciplines, partly because he was constantly called on to make apparatus for different disciplines and partly because his inner demon required him not to specialise.

Some of the best parts of the book concern the second world war. Firewatch duty on a balcony of the National Institute for Medical Research in Hampstead brought Lovelock together with senior scientists, including future Nobel laureates. After close shaves with bombs and missiles - a V1 flying bomb once passed so near that he could see the rivets holding it together - in relief his companions would do "what I can only call a brain dump". "Taciturn, uncommunicative scientists... would start talking to me as if I were a combination of an old friend and a father confessor. They seemed to feel a need to pass on the secrets of their scientific craft to the nearest young scientist."

One of his wartime projects was to find out what kind of organisms working-class Londoners were breathing in the underground shelters; the government feared a recurrence of the 1918 flu epidemic. The people sleeping down there told him that at the height of the Blitz the air was so foul that a cigarette would not burn and though a match would strike, the flame would die - indicating an oxygen content less than 13 to 15 per cent but more than 10 per cent, otherwise there would have been deaths from asphyxiation. Yet the samples when analysed proved that there was little risk of any epidemic: "The inhabitants were incredibly healthy." The work was exhausting but exciting. In between sampling sessions, Lovelock had an affair with a "warm and passionate" nurse from Guy's Hospital; they made love behind the locked doors of the first-aid room.

He also invented a coloured wax pencil for writing on cold, damp glassware. It was a roaring success with his bacteriologist colleagues and could have led to a full-time career supplying the hospitals of London. At the suggestion of the institute's director, he published the formula in a letter to Nature - and promptly received a letter from a pencil manufacturer in the United States requesting him to sell the patent. But as with the majority of scientific work in Britain at that time, there was no patent. (True, too, of another budding contemporary inventor, Arthur C. Clarke, who proposed the communications satellite in Wireless World in 1945.) While Lovelock retains respectful feelings for this "socialist" ethos, he accepts that today there is no option but for the American-style "culture of reward" for inventors and their institutions to move into Britain.

His work for Nasa at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in the 1960s provides some fascinating material, scientific and also sociological, concerning the differences between British and American science. (On his first visit to the US, invited by Harvard Medical School, he and his family were left so hard up for money by an insensitive administration that he had to sell his blood - many pints of which he had given free in Britain for experimental purposes.) At JPL, he was asked to advise on the construction of experiments for detecting life on Mars, and came to the radical conclusion that there could not be any life on the planet because the atmosphere of Mars was close to chemical equilibrium and dominated by carbon dioxide, like that of Venus but quite unlike that of Earth. In Gaia, Lovelock recounted how his flash of understanding set him thinking about Earth as a self-regulating system. Homage to Gaia gives the full story of this episode, including the hostility of the biologists determined to find life on Mars, who persuaded Congress to back the Viking mission. He also notes, with justified satisfaction, that today Nasa proposes using his "holistic atmospheric life-detection method" to search for life on planets elsewhere.

Generally speaking, biologists have given Gaia a rough ride on the grounds that its evolution cannot be explained by natural selection; that holistic explanations are inferior to reductionist ones; and that the whole notion has mystical overtones - though in recent years several biologists such as John Maynard Smith and the late W. D. Hamilton have changed their views. A convinced early champion, who became Gaia's earliest scientific supporter in the US, was the effervescent microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Lovelock and Margulis, though "strange opposites", formed what he calls "the best of my lifetime collaborations... a platonic relationship that kept in a lively steady state". Once, walking in the New Hampshire mountains after a conference, they became so engrossed in the Gaia problem, they got lost. "Lynn gave a cry: 'There are thousands of miles of nothing between here and Canada and if we go the wrong way they will find our bodies in the spring.'" Luckily, they found a logger's trail.

Much of the personal material in the book - and there is a lot of it, including a detailed, unsparing description of Lovelock's surgical history in later life - is genuinely illuminating of the science. His childhood, schooling and adolescence were plainly tough, and science was a way of escape, both mentally and economically. He admits that he was probably an unwanted child, "an accident of the celebration of armistice night on 11 November 1918". His wilful mother, bitterly resentful of being deprived of the chance of a scholarship at 13 because she had to look after her family, was something of a feminist who left him in the charge of his grandmother. When, later in life, she needed him, "in place of a loving son, she had only a man who saw her as a relative in distress". Lovelock also describes how he coped with his comparatively loveless relationship with his first wife, who died from multiple sclerosis after a long and painful illness. The final image here is strangely moving: "My mind was in that kind of turmoil seen in chemistry when a reaction in a flask has started and the heat generated makes it go faster and faster, until the whole thing boils vigorously and sometimes bursts forth from the flask. Grief, relief, sadness, and guilt were all reacting together." It is hard to avoid concluding that Lovelock's belief that Gaia will look after itself, not human beings, if we mistreat the planet too much, must be bound up in some way with these tortured personal relationships.

In the space of a review, one can merely skim the surface of this richly rewarding autobiography. Although there are longueurs , repetitions and untidy digressions (and a limited index) - like life itself - these are forgivable blemishes. Homage to Gaia is both a valuable companion to Lovelock's enduring Gaia books and a book that anyone interested in science must read.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of Earthshock: Climate, Complexity and the Forces of Nature .


Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist

Author - James Lovelock
ISBN - 0 19 286213 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 396

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