Three years ago, at a meeting that was held to celebrate his 100th birthday, the scientist James Lovelock was the subject of a rigorous 90-minute interview on stage at Exeter University. The first question from the audience – which included a host of world-leading researchers – was put by a young man. “You are famous for thinking outside the box,” he asked. “How do you do it?” Lovelock sat thoughtfully for a few moments, before replying: “What box?”
The story, recalled by the conservationist Tim Flannery, was typical of a scientist who never accepted the intellectual confines that so many other researchers erect around their studies over the years. Thus the death last week of Lovelock, at the age of 103, robs the world of a true scientific maverick. This was a polymath who never accepted a university-tenured position, although his academic influence was profound. He pioneered work in chemistry, exobiology, virology and atmospheric physics and as one of the originators of the Gaia hypothesis – which holds that our living planet can be viewed as a single biological system – he became a venerated figure in the environment movement. Life shapes the environment and not the other way round, he argued. At the same time, Lovelock also took work from Shell, Hewlett-Packard and the intelligence services. In this way, his original thinking graced industry, the green movement, government and, for good measure, the hunt for life on other worlds.
“My role has been to bring separated things together and make the whole more than the sum of the parts,” he once told the writer Jonathan Watts. Such an attitude flies in the face of modern academia, which all too often is filled with those who specialise in ever more fragmented niches.
Critical to Lovelock’s success as an independent thinker was his role in the invention of the electron capture detector – a matchbox-size device that can measure tiny traces of toxic chemicals in the environment. This earned him enough money to achieve academic freedom, a liberation from intellectual constraint that he relished with considerable enthusiasm. “As any artist or novelist would understand, some of us do not produce their best when directed,” he later explained in his autobiography, Homage to Gaia.
The need for visionary scientists who choose to work independently and who can explore a number of different fields to reveal fresh intellectual insights has never been more acute. Modern science has not only become dangerously compartmentalised, it is also coming under increasing regulatory pressure from governments and politicians who seek more subservience from those scientists who accept their funding in order to carry out their research. Mavericks such as Lovelock who look beyond the confines of their laboratories and who reject attempts to restrain their activities are becoming a worrying rarity.An example of Lovelock’s broad-ranging thinking is provided by his studies, while working for Nasa, of the harsh, carbon dioxide atmospheres of Venus and Mars. By contrast, on Earth, nitrogen and oxygen dominate, he noted in the 70s. Together with the biologist Lynn Margulis, he argued that early lifeforms that began to extract carbon dioxide on Earth eventually led to the evolution of a biological system that manipulated atmosphere and water to its own advantage. Gaia had been born.
Gaia was a major influence on the green movement, though Lovelock was suspicious of its claims and aspirations. “Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science,” he argued, and likened them to “some global over-anxious mother figure who is so concerned about small risks that she ignores the real dangers”. Such a judgment is perhaps a little harsh, though it also reveals an independence of mind that was the hallmark of a great scientist whose vision and creativity will be sorely missed.