Tag Archives: James Lovelock

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.

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.

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.