Dr. James Ephraim Lovelock, British Independent Scientist, Author and Leading Thinker in Environmentalism

Increased specialization is a natural consequence of our high level of technological and scientific achievement. As a result, most experts work in a narrowly-defined field of expertise. Old-style polymaths are getting a bit thin on the ground. Dr. James Lovelock belongs to that rare and excellent class of scientists who have had achievements in several fields over the course of a long career.

James Lovelock was born July 26, 1919 in Letchworth Garden City, UK. Young James showed an aptitude for science and his school work led to a bachelor's degree in chemistry from University of Manchester in 1941 and a PhD in medicine from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1948. From 1946 to 1948 he also worked at the Common Cold Research Unit (CCU) at Harvard Hospital Salisbury, Wiltshire. In 1959, he earned a DSc degree in biophysics from London University.

Lovelock received the Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine in 1954, which was spent at Harvard University Medical School. He also spent time at Yale University in 1958. In 1961, Dr. Lovelock took a position as professor of chemistry at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he worked until 1964.

During the 1960s, demonstrating his remarkable intellectual and occupational versatility, Dr. Lovelock worked with NASA on the Viking spacecraft program–instruments of his design assisted in determining the structure of the Martian atmosphere. It was at this time that he began to collaborate with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In addition to his academic associations, Lovelock has worked as an independent researcher in his many fields of interest, which include medicine, biology, geology and instrument science. Dr. Lovelock has published over 200 papers in these fields.

Lovelock the Inventor

A prolific lifelong inventor, Lovelock has devised many chemical detection devices and has filed more than fifty patents. His inventions paved the way for the discipline of gas chromatography. Of his many creations, the one which had perhaps the greatest impact was the electron capture detector (ECD), which he developed in 1957. The ECD unit contains carrier gas in a sealed cylinder. A small quantity of Nickel-63 ionizes the gas, and the resulting cloud of free electrons reacts with strongly electronegative atoms (such as halogens) in a sample introduced into the unit–allowing for easy detection of these compounds. Many halogenated organic compounds, such as DDT and PCBs can be very threatening to organisms, so the ECD was a boon for sniffing out that sort of toxic compounds in water, soil and air. The ECD has also been used in meteorology for the tracking of air masses.

Using the ECD, scientists discovered that a few of these dangerous compounds were in nearly everything–from drinking water to shellfish. This information served as the inspiration for Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, which was a grave warning about the profusion of toxic chemicals in the environment, and was one of the beginning sparks of the environmental movement.

One troubling thing which Lovelock discovered was the profuse and long-lived nature of chloroflurocarbons in the atmosphere. He was one of the first scientists to warn about the potential danger which these substances could pose to the ozone layer. Many of his inventions have been used by NASA for the analysis of the composition of bodies in space such as planetary crusts and atmospheres, comets and asteroids.

the Gaia Hypothesis

Examining the static equilibrium of the atmosphere of the planet Mars, Lovelock predicted that the red planet could not support life. He examined the homeostasis of the atmospheric processes on earth in light of the intricate system of feedback between animals, plants and microorganisms (the biota) and air, water and soil (the environment). Working with Dr. Lynn Margulis, he developed the idea of the biosphere as a sort of self-organizing superorganism (Dr. Margulis' term). Following the advice of his neighbor, author William Golding, he named this conjecture after the Greek earth goddess, Gaia. He coined the term geophysiology for the study of the life science of the earth as a whole

The Gaia Theory has attracted much attention, both positive and negative. Some scientists felt that Gaia implied a consciousness and altruism in nature (Lovelock and Margulis spent a good deal of time rebutting this claim). On the other hand, the science was solid and a lot of scientific professionals felt that the theory made a nifty model for the way things work. Some environmentalists and neo-pagans took Gaia rather literally, feeling that the idea of earth as an actual organism was no mere analogy. This latter group of 'Gaia Groupies' made Dr. Margulis rather uncomfortable, and may also have caused some discomfort for Dr. Lovelock.*

In his very long and extremely distinguished career, Dr. James Lovelock has been the recipient of numerous awards, honors and degrees. Just a few of these are: Fellow of the Royal Society (1974, 1975), American Chemical Society's Award for Chromatography (1980), Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Amsterdam Prize for the Environment (1990), Japan's Blue Planet Prize (1997). He has received honorary doctorates from many institutions and received the CBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.

Recently, Dr. Lovelock has publicly announced his support for nuclear energy. In his opinion, the risks associated with nuclear reactors are small compared to the dangers posed by global warming and fossil fuels. He said: "I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objections to nuclear energy."

He currently acts as Honorary Visiting Fellow at Green College, University of Oxford. Dr. Lovelock has been closely associated with the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. He has co-written a great number of papers with members of the MBA and has also served as president of that organization.

Dr. Lovelock currently lives in Cornwall, in the west of England.


Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford University Press, 1979).
The Greening of Mars (with Michael Allaby) ( Warner Books, 1984).
Ages of Gaia (W. W. Norton, 1988, rev. ed. 1995).
Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine (Gaia Books, 1991).
Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (his autobiography) (Oxford University Press, 2000).

*The Christian response in the U.S. has been fascinating–on one hand, some Christians see Gaia as scientific proof of divine intelligence, while others find its pagan name (and, perhaps, some of its deeper implications for environmental responsibility) rather disquieting). It is not to much of a stretch to hear a few preachers lumping Gaia in with crystals, tarot and Wicca while, at a very similar church across the street, Gaia is being lauded as "further scientific evidence of God's plan."

Wikipedia entry
Dr. Lovelock's homepage, lots of info about his life and work, plus pictures at: http://www.ecolo.org/lovelock/index.htm
Quite a bit about the Gaia Hypothesis can be found at "The Gaia Hypothesis proposed by Dr James Lovelock and Dr Lynn Margulis" http://www.mountainman.com.au/gaia.html
Taliesin's Muse's very good writeup on Gaia hypothesis
Info on the ECD by the people who actually sell 'em, http://www.srigc.com/catalog/ecddetector.htm
Giga quotes: http://www.giga-usa.com/quotes/authors/james_lovelock_a001.htm

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