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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Watts

Conversations with James Lovelock, the scientist at the end of the world

Jon Watts, left,  and James Lovelock
Jon Watts, left, and James Lovelock Photograph: Jon Watts/The Guardian

In science and life, the reward for a curious mind is to look for one thing and find another that is more interesting. That was how James Lovelock – conceiver of the Gaia theory – explained the outlook that made him one of the most influential thinkers of the past century, and he encouraged me to apply the same approach in interviewing him over the past two years for a biography.

What it revealed was that, even beyond the laudatory obituaries and tributes that followed his death at 103, there was far more to Jim – and his influence on the modern world – than almost anyone realises.

Lovelock is celebrated first and foremost for the Gaia theory, that most holistic of ways of understanding life on Earth, but the origins of that hypothesis may surprise many of his closest followers. He is known to have worked for the UK Ministry of Defence, but the extent of his role in the protection of the population and the intelligence services (he only half-jokingly described himself as a “Mini Q”) has largely been hidden by the Official Secrets Act.

It was a privilege to have access to such a mind, and a breadth of experience that demonstrated how the history of science is shaped by relationships as much as the brilliant ideas of a genius.

James Lovelock, 94, with one of his early inventions, a homemade gas chromatography device.
James Lovelock, 94, with one of his early inventions, a homemade gas chromatography device. Photograph: Nicholas.T Ansell/PA

Jim was also funnier, more charming and kinder than his maverick loner reputation suggested. I believe sympathy was part of the reason he agreed to let me write his biography. I had put in a pitch after meeting him for the first time in the summer of 2020 and was waiting months for a reply. Then, my life was turned upside down by a cardiac arrest and I needed three shocks to revive me.

While I was recovering in a hospital bed, Jim chose the perfect moment to say he was looking forward to sharing his life stories with me and added some words of encouragement. “I was also in my 50s when I had my first heart attack, but I’ve gone on to live past 100. There’s a lot of life in you yet.” He immediately became my inspiration for Life 2.0.

With this beginning, the biographer-subject relationship was always going to be somewhat unusual. I was in no mood – in fact, in no physical condition – to push a provocative line of questioning. I simply wanted to listen and learn, and to make the experience for both of us as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. The location certainly helped.

James Lovelock, with his wife, Sandy, in 2004.
James Lovelock, with his wife, Sandy, in 2004. Photograph: Tim Cuff/Alamy

Jim, a connoisseur of nature who always preferred quiet, out-of-the-way locations free of uninvited distractions, lived with his wife, Sandy, in one of the most beautiful and remote spots in Dorset – a former coastguard’s cottage a stone’s throw from the shingle of Chesil beach. I would stay in a nearby caravan park or a thatched pub and walk down to the coast each morning, alongside the hedgerows and across the fields to Jim’s home, spend hours talking, and return in time for a late lunch. Over almost two years, I went up and down that slope 34 times.

I came to see these visits as a form of mutual therapy. For Jim, I suppose it was a last chance to upload his life. In his last book, Novacene, he had outlined a theory that in the transition to a world governed by artificial intelligence, energy is increasingly converted into data.

I saw myself as part of that process, recording every word and scanning memories for locked-away details. A couple of times, I asked Jim how he saw himself being transmuted after death. On the first occasion, he replied: “To die is to be part of Gaia. All atoms mixed with the rest, except the hydrogen of course, which escapes into space.”

Later, I put the question in the terms of Novacene: would Jim become more a part of the landscape or the ideascape? The latter, he said only half-jokingly, “would be up to you”, meaning the biography. He was curious about death, as he was about everything else. When we were out for a walk by the sea, he wryly inquired whether I had any awareness after my heart stopped: “What’s it like over there?”

James Lovelock pictured with his cats.
James Lovelock pictured with his cats. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

He had come close to finding out many times in his own life. Jim had been treated eight times for skin cancer, undergone open-heart surgery, lost a kidney, suffered pneumonia and tuberculosis and spent much of his career handling toxins, radioactive substances and explosives. He also used himself as a guinea pig for burn and asphyxiation tests during the second world war. (The only time Jim experimented on real hamsters was when he froze one and brought it back to life during a cryobiology phase in the 1950s.)

In his last years, Jim’s health fluctuated. On bad days, he was clearly weaker, and would lean more on photos and documents. On good days, he would regale me with stories at such length and with such energy that I would have to call a halt, exhausted after almost four hours. His short-term memory was wayward, but his recall of names, places, chemical compounds, physics formulae and filthy limericks from more than 50 years ago was astonishing.

To talk to Jim was to travel in time. I came to see him as a scientific genius version of Forrest Gump, who bounded across many of the 20th century’s most important scientific events, shaping the world at each turn.

He was part of Nasa’s missions to find life on Mars, conducted atomic bomb fallout tests in California, issued some of the first warnings about climate disruption, and was the first to discover human-made gases were building up in the stratosphere, which led to a global debate about the ozone hole. He was also an unorthodox father who entertained his children Gandalf-style with customised fireworks and homemade bombs.

Jim was the ultimate polymath: a doctor of medicine who conducted world-leading studies in fields ranging from chemistry and virology to exobiology and atmospheric physics. He worked for Shell, Nasa, Hewlett-Packard, Pye Chemicals, the University of Reading and the intelligence services, yet managed to be a prominent environmental as well as industrial thinker.

Prof James Lovelock in his laboratory.
Prof James Lovelock in his laboratory. Photograph: Tim Cuff/Alamy

He was at least as much an engineer as a theoretician. He bought a lathe to make his own instruments in a home laboratory he built in a barn. His invention of the electron capture detector played a key role in the evolution of the environmental movement because it was the most sensitive device in the world for measuring the buildup of toxins in the soil, water and air.

Jim was modest. “I never considered myself even vaguely a genius,” he told me, but he looked back at his trajectory with incredulous wonder. “It’s an extraordinary life I have led.”

He saw his real gift as the ability to cross boundaries and combine fields. “My role has been to bring separated things and ideas together and make the whole more than the sum of the parts.”

This put him at loggerheads with many of his contemporaries in academia, who had built careers by specialising in ever more fragmented niches. “The trouble with science is that it is more and more about less and less,” Jim complained of his epic intellectual battles in the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle.

Their wrath had been provoked by the Gaia hypothesis, a new way of understanding theEarth as a self-regulating system. This was radical in the 1970s and 80s because it challenged the prevailing neo-Darwinist view that life was shaped by the environment.

Gaia Theory – developed by Lovelock in collaboration with Dian Hitchcock and Lynn Margulis – went a step further by suggesting the reverse was just as true: life shapes the environment. The idea that algae and other tiny, unglamorous creatures do most of the hard work in maintaining the chemical balance of the atmosphere was considered outlandish before Gaia, but is now a fundamental part of Earth system science.

Jim went a step further in saying the planet behaved like a living organism – a metaphor that further infuriated the neo-Darwinists, but ensured this most holistic of theories spread far beyond the confines of academia to become a tenet in new age religions and part of modern popular culture.

It also made Jim into something of a guru, with an influence that spread to Margaret Thatcher, Václav Havel, Richard Branson and Vivienne Westwood. “They all look to me for guidance on saving the world, but I’m not sure I can help,” Jim told me. “I can’t be responsible for the entire planet. I do my best.”

Like anyone, he was a mass of contradictions. At different times over the past 30 years, he has declared himself pro- and anti-green, and he memorably prophesied imminent climate disaster only to chide himself for being too alarmist a few years later.

James Lovelock in his laboratory at home.
James Lovelock in his laboratory at home. Photograph: Homer Sykes/Alamy

Towards the end, he was once again filled with foreboding, and explored the possibility that the Covid pandemic was a Gaian negative feedback mechanism to reduce human pressure on the Earth system. More than once, he compared Gaia’s woes to his own health: “I can understand you old lady. We’re both in similar trouble.”

I will miss those conversations enormously. Although Jim would often gently mock Guardian values and I would sometimes roll my eyes at his more conservative views, I cherished his company and was grateful for the hospitality he and Sandy provided. This was not my usual journalistic practice, but the closer we became, the more he opened up about sensitive topics.

At this stage in life, he said, he could tell me things he had never told anyone before, which meant a much more personal and political perspective on the way scientific history is made. We never argued. I was there to ask, to listen and, most of all, to try to understand how Jim became Jim and how his views evolved.

Curiosity drove him. Accuracy delighted him. But it was never just about science and data, but intuition and feeling. That’s why Jim’s theories continue to have appeal and relevance. One of his favourite poems was An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin. He could recite the final stanza, which now seems more apt than ever.

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.

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