British environmentalist James Lovelock died this week on his 103rd birthday. The brilliant scientist spent much of his century-plus on Earth furthering our knowledge of the planet, and exhorting humans to take better care of it.
Lovelock was born in London in 1919. He studied medicine, chemistry and biophysics in the U.K. and U.S. He also worked in both countries, spending the 1940s and 1950s at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and part of the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. There he focused on the moon and Mars, rather than Earth. Much of his work was accomplished as an independent scientist.
One of Lovelock’s important inventions was an electron capture detector used for measuring pollutants in water, soil and air, and chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. He didn’t follow along with the crowd. Indeed, he pissed off many environmentalists with his staunch support of nuclear energy as the surest way to stop global warming.
“Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media,” he wrote in 2004. “These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.”
But Lovelock is best known for developing the Gaia hypothesis with philosopher and fellow NASA scientist Dian Hitchcock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis. In the 1970s, the scientists proposed the idea of Earth and its biological systems work as a single entity, with self-regulating feedback mechanisms. But human activities had thrown the planet into disequilibrium. This perspective is much more mainstream than it was 50 years ago, when some people dismissed the Gaia hypothesis as New Age claptrap.
Lovelock felt that, unfortunately, public opinion caught up with him too late. In 2020, he told the Guardian, “The biosphere and I are both in the last 1% or our lives.”
The scientist had a long and productive life, and was in good health until a fall six months ago laid him low.
“To the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and conceiver of the Gaia theory,” his family said in a statement. “To us, he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humor and a passion for nature.”
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