Tag Archives: Climate Change

Waiting for the end of the world with my father, James Lovelock

As a new exhibition on James Lovelock opens, his daughter Christine recalls her science-filled childhood and the night they sat up waiting for a comet to destroy the Earth.

Photo of James Lovelock in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. Image credit: Science Museum

Photo of James Lovelock in his laboratory at Coombe Mill. Image credit: Science Museum

When I was a child my father took us to the Science Museum in London. His favourite exhibit was the Newcomen steam engine, built in the early 18th century to pump water from mines. He told us how much the museum had inspired him when he was a child. Science had become the abiding passion of his life, and as we grew up it was the background to ours as well.

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. 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.

My strongest memories of my father during this period are the conversations we had about scientific ideas, whether on country walks or at the dining table. We often had fun working out plots for stories, including one he helped me to write about some fossil hunters on a Dorset beach who stumbled on a fossilised radio set – with shocking implications for the established science of geology.

When we moved back to Wiltshire, he turned Clovers Cottage into the world’s only thatched space laboratory. It was full of interesting equipment, much of it home-made, including an electric Bunsen burner. The cottage used to have a skull and crossbones in the window, with the warning “Danger Radioactivity!” My father always said this was a good way to deter burglars.

Clovers Cottage in Wiltshire, 'the world's only thatched space laboratory', where Lovelock worked for Nasa in the 1960s investigating the possibility of life on Mars. Image credits: Christine Lovelock

Clovers Cottage in Wiltshire, ‘the world’s only thatched space laboratory’, where Lovelock worked for Nasa in the 1960s investigating the possibility of life on Mars. Image credits: Christine Lovelock

One evening in the 1960s, my father arrived home from a trip to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California with some frightening news. A comet had been spotted that was expected to hit Earth that night. The Nasa astronomers back then didn’t have today’s computer technology and said there had been no time to go public with the news.

My father wasn’t worried about the potential disaster. His reaction was a mixture of apprehension, curiosity and excitement. As he said, “If it hits us and it’s the end of the world, we won’t know anything about it, but if there is a near miss, then we might see some amazing fireworks.” While the rest of Britain slept a peaceful sleep, we packed up the car and drove to the highest hill nearby.

I’ll always remember that night, when we snuggled under blankets in the darkness, waiting and watching for what might have been the end of the world. It didn’t happen, of course. The astronomers got it wrong, as my father expected they would, but in an odd – and unscientific – way we felt we had done our bit to keep the Earth safe.

James Lovelock and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970. Image credits: Irish Examiner

James Lovelock and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970. Image credits: Irish Examiner

As I grew older I began to help my father more with his work. One day I will never forget is when we went up Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula in Ireland in 1969. Our mission was to collect samples of the cleanest air in Europe, blowing straight off the Atlantic. My father then drove straight on to Shannon Airport, and flew with the samples to the United States.

On arrival, a customs officer thought my father was being facetious when he said the flasks contained “fresh Irish air”. An argument ensued in which the official demanded that the flasks be opened, which would have made the whole journey pointless. Fortunately, sense prevailed and the samples reached their destination safely.

Christine Lovelock is an artist who campaigns to preserve the countryside.

You can watch our Youtube video of James Lovelock talking about the inspiration behind his inventions and what the Science Museum means to him.

World must adapt to climate change, says IPCC

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

The world is ill prepared for an unknown climate future and must adapt to meet the challenges, according to a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Yokohama, Japan. You can read the press summary of the UN agency’s report here and the full report here, written by 309 authors and editors drawn from 70 countries.

Today’s report, which focuses on how there will be sweeping consequences to life and livelihood, and how to adapt to them, is the second of three in the IPCC’s fifth assessment of climate change.

The first instalment, released last year, covered the physical science of climate change.  The third, on how to cut emissions that drive climate change, comes out in April.

At the Science Museum, you can keep up to date with the issues surrounding climate change through a series of exhibitions, artworks and educational activities. Our interactive Atmosphere gallery, encourages visitors to learn about the work of early pioneers such as John Tyndall, uncover the secrets of ice cores and stalagmites, and wonder at the latest ideas for a low-carbon life. You can also play a climate themed computer game called Rizk.

To see how fiction has been inspired by climate change, download the Museum’s first novel, Shackleton’s Man Goes South, by Tony White. You can also discover the beauty, value and volume of ‘rubbish’ we produce in an upcoming exhibition, The Rubbish Collection – which will trace the journey of waste generated by staff and visitors to the Museum over a 30 day period.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

James Lovelock in his laboratory.

Next week we will celebrate the life and 70 year career of James Lovelock – one of Britain’s most important living scientists, with an exhibition, Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick. The exhibition will feature highlights from a remarkable archive of images, manuscripts and audio-visual material acquired by the Museum in 2012 – providing visitors with a glimpse into life in Lovelock’s laboratory and his creative mind and charismatic personality.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will publish a report on the public understanding of climate change later this week after holding a hearing in the Museum last year.

Reflections on the latest climate change report

Howard Covington and Prof. Chris Rapley reflect on the latest climate change report.

In 2010, the Science Museum opened atmosphere, a gallery exploring climate science. Three years on and the Museum is a partner in a commercial venture to build the UK’s largest solar farm on a disused airfield it owns near Swindon. The project will eventually generate 40mw of electricity, enough for 12,000 homes.

Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum.

Here in microcosm is what is taking place in countries around the world as our understanding of the threat of climate change deepens and slowly prompts action to transform the energy infrastructure on which we rely. Are the many piecemeal actions of this kind enough to leave us feeling confident?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recently confirmed the likely consequences of continuing to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. As a global community, we are about as well informed on climate science as we might hope to be. But the uncertainties that surround climate change still leave us guessing where things are likely to come out.

There are three big uncertainties. The first is how fast humanity will cut carbon emissions. For the moment, we are on track to double atmospheric carbon dioxide by some point in the second half of the century. The second is how the climate will respond. A widely used indicator is the change in global average surface temperature when carbon dioxide concentration doubles. The best estimate is in the range 1.5 to 4.5 degrees centigrade. The third uncertainty is the impact of such a change on future human wellbeing and the material damages it might cause.

In the absence of stronger action than is currently evident there is a finite risk that we could hit 4 degrees of warming in the second half of the century, with the possibility of amplifying feedbacks locking in further temperature increasing processes over which we would have no control. The resulting climate changes would play out over centuries and millennia, producing permanent climate instabilities and shifts not experienced over human history.

Risk could be reduced by policy changes among the principal emitters. By far the simplest action would be an agreed price for carbon emissions to accelerate the piecemeal transformation of energy infrastructure already underway. We might also get lucky if it turns out that the response of the climate to emissions lies at the lower end of the range. We should know where we stand in the next few decades. Meanwhile we might reasonably spend a moment on the implications of a 4 degree world.

Here we are again beset with uncertainty. We don’t know with precision how fast polar ice sheets will disintegrate and sea level will rise. Nor do we know how climatic zones may shift or how higher average temperatures and rainfall will combine with more frequent weather extremes and changing weather patterns to disrupt water supplies and agriculture.

The pattern of cereal production could be significantly affected. Cereal demand may double by 2050 in response to population increases and changes in food preferences. This demand might be met by improved technology and waste elimination. Weather extremes and instability at 4 degrees may cut crop yields significantly, creating a further gap to be filled, perhaps by genetically improved robustness and the cultivation of newly productive northern lands.

Geo-engineering might provide a temporary window of opportunity for a crash programme to decarbonise economies and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, although with a substantial risk of unintended and unwelcome consequences. On the other hand we might have to cope with disruption triggered by populations seeking to move from areas rendered inhospitable by inundations, floods, drought, extreme temperatures, fires and local shortages of food and water.

How all of this will play out is clearly impossible to say. Optimists believe that with luck, free markets and technological ingenuity we could rise to a 4 degree challenge if we can’t avoid it altogether. Pessimists argue that 4 degrees is beyond adaptation and may lead to a period of dislocation. Either way our lives are likely to be transformed in the next few decades as we thoughtfully re-engineer food and energy production and relocate climate migrants or rather more chaotically seek to respond to the multiple pressures of population growth, energy needs and climate disruption.

The UK is relatively small, open and unprotected and may not do well in the face of climate disruption. On the other hand it is highly creative and nurtures much scientific and technological talent. Its leading universities are rich in individuals and teams who understand the technologies of a low carbon future. It has an opportunity to lead an industrial revolution that is poised to happen. The case for maximising long-term value and reducing risk by seizing this opportunity is powerful.

Preventing dangerous climate change is principally a matter for the world’s largest emitters. The UK, however, has set an example by adopting tough emissions targets and by using its international influence and scientific strength for the good. It should continue to advance policies that spur a new industrial revolution from which it could benefit greatly, while heading off a climate transition that it may struggle to cope with.

The Science Museum is one of the world’s finest institutions in which to explore the history of science and technology. It is greatly to its credit that it is not only informing its visitors about the climate challenges ahead but also playing its part in dealing with them.

Howard Covington is a trustee of the Science Museum. Chris Rapley is Professor of Climate Science at University College London and a former director of the Science Museum.

Shackleton’s Man Goes South

Guest post by author Tony White, who writes about his new novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South, the Science Museum’s 2013 Atmosphere commission. Download the novel here.

I’m really excited that the moment you turn the corner from the lifts on the 2nd floor of the Science Museum you get a clear view right across the Atmosphere Gallery to a large logo on the opposite wall, twenty-feet high, which seems to be melting or dripping down the wall but which still recognisably spells out the words ‘Shackleton’s Man Goes South’. This is the title of my novel which has just been published by the Science Museum, the first novel that the Museum have ever published!

Beneath this large wall graphic you will find a touch screen where you can email yourself a free ebook of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, and there is a special display showing some of the scientific and literary inspirations behind the novel. (Listen to an audio extract. Download the novel here until 24 July.)

Shackleton's Man Goes South

Shackleton’s Man Goes South display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image: Science Museum

The novel was inspired by two things: a science fiction short story warning of climate change that was written on Antarctica in 1911 by a polar explorer and atmospheric scientist called George Clarke Simpson, and secondly by silent black and white film of Antarctica, shot during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s heroic expedition of 1914-16; the first moving images of Antarctica that most people at the time had ever seen.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson.

Polar explorer and atmospheric scientist George Clarke Simpson. Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

My novel fuses these ideas to tell a new story about Emily and her daughter Jenny, climate change refugees who are fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it as Shackleton had done, in a hot world rather than a cold one, but a world in which the Shackleton story has become a founding myth of the new continent, much as the story of Christopher Columbus gave symbolic value to historical migration to the United States of America.

I wanted to try and communicate some of these ideas in the Shackleton’s Man Goes South logo, so I approached leading British designer Jake Tilson, who is well known for his work with the likes of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and many others.

Shackleton's Man book cover

Shackleton’s Man book cover

In our early conversations Jake and I both wanted to relate the logo to polar-themed books and films of the Shackleton era, so he created an Art Nouveau-style typeface and used this to spell out the title of the novel, before using computer software to ‘morph’ the lettering, as if it were melting and dripping down the page: ‘going south’ as the title suggests. Normally one associates the name of Shackleton with snow and ice, with cold colours such as pale blues or white, but we wanted to  reflect the kind of colouring that is used on maps to communicate global temperature increases. Our logo is spelt out in bold yellow, and as it melts the logo changes subtly to a warmer orange.

Jake Tilson’s logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South is a crucial part of the designs for both the novel and the Atmosphere Gallery display. It has been a huge privilege to work with a great British designer like Jake Tilson. I hope that his melting logo for Shackleton’s Man Goes South will intrigue Science Museum visitors, as well as giving some clues about my book and the story it contains.

The Pavegen dance floor, used to generate electricity from movement

Climate Change Lates

The unpredictable British weather has had a big impact on our lives already this year. So, as we emerge from the April showers, what better theme for a Lates evening is there than the science of climate change?

Join us for a fun and thought-provoking evening where we take a closer look at the new technologies being pioneered to help solve some of the most pressing climate related issues that affect our daily lives.

How do we meet the demand of a growing population and the expansion of our cities? Ian Bowman, Head of Sustainability UK and NW Europe, Siemens looks at how new technology is the key to meeting these challenges and offers up solutions which have minimum ecological impact such as the use of wind power technology, electric vehicles and hybrid transport and more eco-friendly healthcare systems. For more examples of eco-engineering you can check out the hydrogen fuel cell car which is on display in our Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery.

Original equipment used by Charles Keeling to sample carbon dioxide levels in the air on display in the Atmosphere gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Great London Flood. Some experts think that the increased risk of flooding from climate change may render the Thames Barrier redundant by the middle of the century. So how will London be protected? Meet Tim Reeder, Regional Climate Change Programme Manager at the Environment Agency who will talk about the challenge of planning for sea level rise in London and how the Thames Estuary 2100 plan is going to tackle it.

Imagine if your night in a club or walk to work could power the lights for your journey home. Test out your moves in the Energy Dance-off, which features an incredible energy harvesting dance floor from Pavegen that converts the kinetic energy of your dance steps into electricity, powering a reactive light installation.

The Pavegen dance floor.

The Pavegen dance floor. Image credit: Pavegen

Already used by runners at this year’s Paris Marathon, every impact on a Pavegen tile generates between 4 and 8 joules of electrical energy, power that would otherwise have gone to waste. You can also follow the dance floor on twitter to see just how much energy Lates visitors generate.

Throughout the evening you can have fun with the Climate Playground and try your hand at some old-school kids’ games and indulge in all the usual Lates activities such as the Silent Disco, Pub Quiz and Launchpad gallery.

Entry to Lates is FREE and open to anyone over the age of 18. Can’t get to London on Wednesday? You can also follow Lates via @sciencemuseum & #smLates

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: The Lovelock Archive

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, Science Museum

It’s an amazing image to conjure with: the 23-year old James Lovelock, our most famous independent scientist, cradling a baby in his arms who would grow to become the world’s best known scientist, Stephen Hawking.

Lovelock told me about this touching encounter during one of his recent visits to the Science Museum, a vivid reminder of why the museum has spent £300,000 on his archive, an extraordinary collection of notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence that reveals the remarkable extent of his research over a lifetime, from cryobiology and colds to Gaia and geoengineering.

A Lifetime of Work

A Lifetime of Work: Notebooks, manuscripts photographs and correspondence from the Lovelock archive

Lovelock, who was born on 26 July 1919, must have encountered the great cosmologist in the year of Hawking’s birth, 1942, when he was working at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, after graduating in chemistry from Manchester University the year before.

Hawking’s father was Frank Hawking (1905-1986) who 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.

As for his impact, there’s no better way to emphasise Lovelock’s stature than to read the foreword of one of his recent books, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, and the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, who describes him as among the most important independent scientists of the last century: “He is a hero to many scientists – certainly to me.”

Lovelock has made headlines for his views on the environment, and his support for nuclear power (he once told me he would happily store nuclear waste in his garden), but he is best known for introducing the world to the seductive idea of Gaia, which says the Earth behaves as though it were an organism. The concept first reached a wide audience in 1975 in an article published in New Scientist, but was ridiculed, attacked for being teleological, even mocked as an “evil religion”.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld, helped Gaia mature from a hypothesis into a theory by putting it on a mathematical foundation. Light, and dark, coloured daisies evolved within an idealised world, waxing and waning to balance the way they absorbed and reflected sunlight to regulate the temperature, so it was optimum for plant growth. Among the items acquired by the museum is a Hewlett Packard computer that Lovelock used for Daisyworld.

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Lovelock’s computer simulation, Daisyworld

Bolstering Lovelock’s Gaian vision came experimental evidence, the discovery that sulphur from ocean algae circulated worldwide in a form that has since been linked with the formation of clouds that are able to cool the world by reflecting sunlight back into space. Today, Gaia’s influence stretches beyond Earth to music, fiction and even computer games.

The Science Museum’s collection includes Lovelock’s Electron Capture Detector which he invented in 1956 to detect a range of substances, he explained, ‘mostly nasty poisons and carcinogens, or else harmful to the atmosphere like nitrous oxide and halocarbons.’ In the summer of 1967 Lovelock used it measured the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto Ireland’s west coast and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion. ‘It’s sad that it would now be almost impossible for a lone scientist like me to make or use an ECD without breaking the health and safety laws,’ he told me.

Electron capture detector for a gas chromatograph

James Lovelock developed this highly sensitive detector for measuring air pollution in 1960.

I have met this green guru on and off since 1991 and, the last time we talked, he was as provocative as ever. The attempts to model the Earth’s climate system do not yet fully include the response of the ecosystem of the land or oceans, and Lovelock warned about feedback effects, some that can damp down climate change and others that accelerate it, and he predicts a threshold above which there could be a five degree increase in temperature.

He is withering about the attempt of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to forge a consensus, a word that he says has no place in science. That is no surprise. From 1964 Lovelock has worked as an independent scientist and he is writing a book about being a lone scientist in response to an article in the Wall Street Journal which argued that the scientific process can only happen through collaboration. Lovelock believes that lone scientists can work more like artists in that they can be reflective and do not necessarily need other people to collaborate with.

And when it comes to the fate of our home world, all is not lost. Lovelock, like many others, is receptive to another idea that, relatively recently, was laughed off as unrealistic, even a little mad: geoengineering, or “planetary medicine”, which could mean cooling the Earth by the use of space mirrors or clouds of particulates.

Lovelock, who has been visiting the Science Museum since the age of seven, teamed with a former Museum Director, Chris Rapley, to devise another way to cool our overheated world: pumping chilly waters from the ocean depths to fertilize the growth of carbon-hungry blooms.