In Conversation with James Lovelock

By Laura Singleton, Press Officer

To celebrate the opening of Unlocking Lovelock, our new exhibition on James Lovelock, 94, we were treated to a special audience with the great man himself (listen below to the full conversation), as he joined Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, to discuss his career and  his new book, A Rough Ride to the Future (Allen Lane).

Lovelock began by talking about his early visits to the Science Museum at the age of 6 and how his passion for science was inspired by his childhood love of steam engines, notably the one developed by the blacksmith Thomas Newcomen and the Flying Scotsman. He said that learning about science at the Science Museum was far more useful than learning in the classroom.

The conversation moved onto his early career at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill as he talked about his work on developing cures for burns during World War II, and how he preferred to carry out painful experiments on himself rather than rabbits.

He talked about how this work brought him into contact with Stephen Hawking’s father Frank, and the moment he held the infant Hawking in his arms.

Lovelock discussed his next career move to work in Houston for NASA, which provided the perfect opportunity for his inventive skills – creating instruments,‘exceedingly small, simple bits of hardware’ to go on NASA’s rockets. After three years, this paved his way to setting up his own laboratory back in the UK.

When asked whether he sees any scope for anyone succeeding as a lone scientist, he explained how much easier it was to work as an independent scientist years ago when there was less competition due to an overall lack of scientists in the UK at the time. He remains suspicious of committee and consensus led science.

Describing himself as ‘half a scientist, half an inventor’ he explained to the audience that invention is driven by necessity.

This process is ‘largely intuitive’, he said, and ‘the main advances in the world have not been driven by science, but by invention.’

The conversation moved from his work ‘re-animating’ frozen hamsters in a microwave to the importance of his electron capture detector, ECD, a remarkably sensitive instrument to detect trace amounts of chemicals, and gas chromatography equipment (featured in the exhibition). He talked about his home laboratory at Clovers Cottage where a lot of his experiments took place. The laboratory had a “Danger Radioactivity!” sign used to deter burglars.

The ECD helped hone his thinking about Gaia, a holistic view of the world, where all life on Earth interacts with the physical environment to form a complex system that can be thought of as a single super-organism.

Roger Highfield and Jim Lovelock then looked at the origins of his Gaia hypothesis, how his friend, novelist William Golding came up with the catchy title, his work on the theory with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the opposition Gaia faced in the early days, notably from Richard Dawkins, and his Daisyworld computer model.

Later, when asked by an audience member to defend the theory against the opposing view by someone like David Attenborough, Lovelock replied that ‘To fight for Gaia is worth it’.

You can discover more about the Unlocking Lovelock exhibition in Nature, the Guardian or by watching our exhibition trailer.

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