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Remembering James Lovelock

We pay tribute to scientist and inventor James Lovelock, who died yesterday, aged 103.

James Lovelock made a vast range of contributions to scientific research, from developing instruments to search for life on Mars and creating the electron capture detector, an extraordinarily sensitive way to detect pollutants, to his hugely influential Gaia hypothesis, which argues that Earth acts like a living organism.

James Lovelock, photographed in the exhibition about his work, at the Science Museum in London.
James Lovelock, photographed in the exhibition about his work, at the Science Museum in London.

‘Arguably the most important independent scientist of the last century, Jim Lovelock was decades ahead of his time in thinking about the Earth and climate and his unique approach was an inspiration for many,’ said Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Science Museum Group’s Board of Trustees. ‘Originality of thought, scepticism of the status quo and above all a focus on invention lie at the heart of his remarkable contribution to science.’

In 2014, when the Science Museum launched an exhibition about Lovelock’s research, based on his archive which was acquired by the Science Museum Group in 2012, Lovelock declared: ‘I attribute the science I have done to the inspiration I received from visits to the museum from the age of 7 onwards.’

At one event in the Science Museum, Lovelock remarked that his encounters in the museum were ‘a major source of inspiration’ and more useful than classroom learning.

Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, noted: ‘The Science Museum held a special place in Jim’s life and I believe his significant research is an extraordinary testament to the power of museums to inspire young people. Thanks to our acquisition of his archive, his work will continue to inspire the scientists and inventors of the future.

On behalf of colleagues across the Science Museum Group, we wish to send his wife, Sandy, and family our deepest condolences.’

‘When I was a child, my father took us to the Science Museum in London’, recalled Jim’s daughter Christine. ‘His favourite exhibit was the Newcomen steam engine, built in the early 18th century to pump water from mines.’

With his profitable steam engine, argued Lovelock, Newcomen unknowingly launched the current Anthropocene epoch, in which human activity affects the natural environment, giving his Gaia hypothesis huge salience.

Roger Highfield, Science Director, interviewed Lovelock over more than three decades: ‘Jim was a noncomformist who had a unique vantage point that came from being, as he put it, half scientist and half inventor. Endless ideas bubbled forth from this synergy between making and thinking.

Although he is most associated with Gaia, he did an extraordinary range of research, from freezing hamsters to detecting life on Mars, popularised his ideas in many books, and he was more than happy to bristle a few feathers, whether by articulating his dislike of consensus views, formal education and committees, or by voicing his enthusiastic support for nuclear power’.

James Ephraim Lovelock was born on 26 July 1919 in Letchworth Garden City. His school reports suggest he was a reluctant pupil with a passion for the natural world, and James Bond-style stories, written from Lovelock’s imagination and featuring heroic scientists.

Lovelock only picked Manchester for his degree after he had visited a youth hostel in the Lake District in 1939, where he became smitten with Lois Dickinson, a chemistry student at the university.

Although his love was unrequited, Lovelock found that Manchester proved the ideal university for his studies.

Lovelock took an honours degree in chemistry under Alexander Todd, also studying physics under Patrick Blackett. Both were young and dynamic, with Blackett going on to win a Nobel prize in 1948 for his studies of cosmic rays, and Todd in 1957 for his work on the building blocks of biochemistry.

However, Lovelock almost came unstuck a few weeks into the course when Todd accused him of cheating in a chemical analysis. His answers were suspiciously right.

Lovelock responded that he could almost do this analysis in his sleep, as it had been a key ingredient of his work for Murray, Bull and Spencer, a firm of consultants in southwest London that he had joined in 1938. The firm had paid for him to study at Birkbeck College, which had paved the way for his studies in Manchester.

After graduating as a chemist from the University of Manchester in 1941, he carried out wartime work at the National Institute for Medical Research, NIMR, in Mill Hill, London.

The next year, aged 23, saw an unusual encounter, at least with the benefit of hindsight. James Lovelock cradled a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best-known scientist, Stephen Hawking (his father, Frank Hawking (1905-1986), spent much of his working life at the NIMR studying parasitology).

Lovelock was doing research at the time of the encounter on sneezing and disinfection, publishing his first scientific paper, in the British Medical Journal, that same year.

There, Lovelock tested methods to treat burns – he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits – blood coagulation and ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave. He found work on such ‘ad hoc problems’ more instructive than doing ‘proper science.’

After the war he was sent to the Common Cold Unit (as the Air Hygiene Unit in 1948). ‘We lived for a while at the Common Cold Research Unit, where my father worked, at Harvard Hospital near Salisbury in Wiltshire, and even became part of the research,’ recalled Christine Lovelock. ‘Whenever we caught a cold the scientists put on parties for us where we would pass on our germs, as well as parcels, to the volunteers who lived in the isolation huts.’

In 1951 a colleague at the National Institute of Medical Research made a throwaway comment to Lovelock, suggesting he make a more sensitive detector than those available which would lead him to develop the Electron Capture Detector (ECD).

Small and simple, the ECD can spot chemicals at a concentration of one part per trillion (around one thousand times more sensitive than what was available at that time). In response to scepticism that it really worked, it took Lovelock another seven years to understand it and verify its accuracy.

Electron capture detector constructed by James Lovelock
Electron capture detector constructed by James Lovelock

In the 1960s the recently formed US space agency, NASA, began to prepare for the Viking Mars mission and in March 1961 wrote to Lovelock in recognition of how he had developed small yet sensitive instruments that would be ideal for such space missions.

He went to work in Houston for NASA, the first Briton to work on their Mars missions, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating ‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets.

Lovelock invented a weight-saving prototype that could analyse the composition of the Martian atmosphere, which would prove critical for Viking’s Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer experiment, where a Mars sample would be introduced into a hydrogen carrier gas and its constituents separated in a heated palladium-silver alloy tube.

Constituents travelled along this tube at different speeds, before being analysed by a mass spectrometer which, as its name suggests, identifies chemical constituents by their mass.

Apparatus for simulating Martian atmospheric pressure, made by James Lovelock
Apparatus for simulating Martian atmospheric pressure, made by James Lovelock

The prototype separation device that Lovelock fashioned in his home laboratory, then in Bowerchalke, Wiltshire, consisted of an ordinary kitchen Kilner jar and home-made lid with teflon to seal in a section of palladium silver alloy tube, along which hydrogen gas passed before it was removed via a valve on the left. The tube was heated to around 200°C to separate the different chemical components carried in the hydrogen gas, doing away with heavy pumps.

He demonstrated the device to ‘rocket scientists’ in Pasadena but at one point the flow of hydrogen stopped, and a sceptical engineer remarked that the tube must be blocked.

It turned out that the separator did indeed work and, when Lovelock proved this, the gaggle of NASA scientists and engineers around him ‘gave a great cheer…here’s something that really works and does magic’, Lovelock recalls in an interview to mark his 100th birthday.

It was while working at NASA that Lovelock began to consider whether life could be detected on a planet simply by examining the planet’s atmosphere. He realised that the atmosphere would be pushed out of equilibrium by reactive gases produced by living processes, such as methane and oxygen.

Whatever kind of biochemistry extra-terrestrial organisms turn out to be based upon, Lovelock realised that chemical equilibrium suggests nothing living is present and any sort of chemical disequilibrium could be regarded as a tell-tale signal of life.

Lovelock’s work on the detector came to fruition in Pasadena in July 1976, when Viking Mars team members sat around a computer monitor, tensely awaiting the first data.

Carbon dioxide was released when organic compounds were added to Martian soil, which was thought to be a life signature. However, the instrument based on Lovelock’s work showed no evidence of life—and not only that but no evidence of organics.

Even though Lovelock remains convinced that Mars is a dead world, the Viking results have long been debated and, because researchers have been impressed by the ability of microorganisms – extremophiles – to thrive in extreme environments on Earth, many scientists believe life might have once lived on Mars and may even linger there today.

After three years, Lovelock’s work at NASA paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK at Clovers Cottage in 1964 where he used a Danger Radioactivity! sign to deter burglars. ‘When we moved back to Wiltshire, he turned Clovers Cottage into the world’s only thatched space laboratory,’ recalled Christine.

Around that time, climate change began to be a topic of interest, for instance to Shell, which he advised.

He had used his ECD to detect trace amounts of chemicals, as he put it: ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’

In the summer of 1967, Lovelock used the ECD to screen the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, greenhouse gases that were later found to cause ozone depletion.

His earlier work for NASA on disequilibrium marked a step towards Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – where Earth is described as a self-regulating system, a super-organism, in which creatures, rocks, air and water interact in subtle ways to ensure the environment remains stable.

The ECD advanced his thinking about this highly influential intellectual framework for understanding the Earth system. His hypothesis was named Gaia by his then novelist-neighbour, William Golding, after the ancient Earth goddess.

Lovelock worked on Gaia with the American biologist Lynn Margulis but Gaia was criticised for being teleological by the distinguished Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins and, in response, Lovelock in the early 1980s, developed a simple computer model, called Daisyworld with his student, Andrew Watson, to put Gaia on firm mathematical foundations.

With Daisyworld, Lovelock wanted to show how life could evolve to help Earth keep its cool, even if the sun was warming. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within Daisyworld, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth.

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence – the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated in the form of a gas, DMS, that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space.

When it comes to the fate of our home world, Lovelock was receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering.

With a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, he devised one way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.

In his last book, Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, Lovelock argued that machines will evolve to outperform us by the end of this century but, reassuringly, will still need humans just as we need plants.

The book was spurred by his irritation at overblown Hollywood descriptions of AI, such as Terminator, and its title reflects his belief in evolution and how we have now entered the Novacene, the age of thinking machines.

Although these machines will evolve to think much more quickly than us, they will still depend on humanity, being part of Gaia. ‘We are now preparing to hand the gift of knowing on to new forms of intelligent beings,’ he wrote in his final book. ‘Do not be depressed by this. We have played our part.’

In 2021, Lovelock appeared at a special panel event exploring his Gaia hypothesis as part of the Science Museum Group’s Climate Talks programme in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow.

Find out more:

Something in the air: James Lovelock and atmospheric pollution

James Lovelock on NASA, inventions and Gaia theory

Explore Lovelock related items in the Science Museum Group Collection

Previous Science Museum blog posts about James Lovelock