James Lovelock: A man for all seasons

John Gray writes: A resolute independence has shaped James Lovelock’s life as a scientist. On the occasions over the past decade or so when I visited him at his home in a remote and wooded part of Devon to discuss his work and share our thoughts, I found him equipped with a mass of books and papers and a small outhouse where he was able to perform experiments and devise the inventions that have supported him through much of his long career. That is all he needed to carry on his work as an independent scientist. Small but sturdily built, often laughing, animated and highly sociable, he is, at the age of 93, far from being any kind of recluse. But he has always resisted every kind of groupthink, and followed his own line of inquiry.

At certain points in his life Lovelock worked in large organisations. In 1941, he took up a post as a junior scientist at the National In – stitute for Medical Research, an offshoot of the Medical Research Council, and in 1961 he was invited to America to join a group of scientists interested in exploring the moon who were based at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa). It was during his time at Nasa that Lovelock had the first inklings of what would become the Gaia theory – according to which the earth is a planet that behaves like a living being, controlling its surface and atmosphere to keep the environment hospitable to life. He has since worked closely with other scientists, including his former doctoral student Andrew Watson, who is now a professor of environmental science, and the late American microbiologist Lynn Margulis, in developing the theory.

Lovelock has always cherished the freedom to follow his own ideas and stood aside from institutions in which science is conducted as a vast collective enterprise. Partly this is an expression of his ingrained individualism, but it also reflects his radically empiricist view of science as a direct engagement with the world and his abiding mistrust of consensual thinking. In these and other respects, he has more in common with thinkers such as Darwin and Einstein, who were able to transform our view of the world because they did not work under any kind of external direction, than he does with most of the scientists who are at work today. [Continue reading…]

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