James Lovelock

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Writers and critics

Dr James Ephraim Lovelock CH CBE FRS, (born July 26, 1919) is an independent scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist and futurologist who lives in Cornwall, in the south west of Great Britain. He is most famous for proposing and popularizing the Gaia hypothesis, in which he postulates that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism (a term coined by Lynn Margulis).

Life history

Lovelock was born in Letchworth Garden City. He studied chemistry at the University of Manchester before taking up a Medical Research Council post at the Institute for Medical Research in London.

In 1948 he received a Ph.D. in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Within the United States he has conducted research at Yale, Baylor University College of Medicine, and Harvard University.

Professional career

A lifelong inventor, Lovelock has created and developed many scientific instruments, some of which have been adopted by NASA in its program of planetary exploration. It was while working for NASA that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis.

In early 1961, Lovelock was engaged by NASA to develop sensitive instruments for the analysis of extraterrestrial atmospheres and planetary surfaces. The Viking program that visited Mars in the late 1970s was motivated in part to determining whether Mars supported life, and many of the sensors and experiments that were ultimately deployed aimed to resolve this issue.

During work towards this program, Lovelock became interested in the composition of the Martian atmosphere, reasoning that any life forms on Mars would be obliged to make use of it (and, thus, alter it). However, the atmosphere was found to be in a stable condition close to its chemical equilibrium, with very little oxygen, methane or hydrogen, but with an overwhelming abundance of carbon dioxide.

To Lovelock, the stark contrast between the Martian atmosphere and chemically-dynamic mixture of that of our Earth's biosphere was strongly indicative of the absence of life on the planet. However, when they were finally launched to Mars, the Viking probes still searched for life there. To date no evidence for either extant or extinct life has been found (though interest has recently revived with the discovery of unexpected methane in the atmosphere).

Lovelock invented the Electron Capture Detector, which ultimately assisted in discoveries about the persistence of CFCs and their role in stratospheric ozone depletion.

Lovelock is currently president of the Marine Biological Association (MBA), was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, and in 1990 was awarded the first Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for the Environment by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. An independent scientist, inventor, and author, Lovelock works out of a barn-turned-laboratory in Cornwall. In 2003 he was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) by Queen Elizabeth II.



While the Gaia Hypothesis was readily accepted by many in the environmentalist community, it has not been fully accepted within the scientific community. Among its more famous critics are Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle, and a detailed description of disputes surrounding it can be found here.

Briefly, critics point out that since natural selection operates on individuals, it is not obvious how planetary-scale homeostasis can evolve.

Lovelock countered these challenges with models such as Daisyworld, which illustrate how individual-level effects can translate to planetary homeostasis. However, as Earth Systems Science is still in its infancy, it is not yet clear how the lessons from Daisyworld apply to the full complexity of the Earth's biosphere and climate.

Nuclear power

Lovelock has become concerned about the threat of global warming from the greenhouse effect. In 2004 he caused a media sensation when he broke with many fellow environmentalists by pronouncing that "Only nuclear power can now halt global warming". In his view, nuclear energy is the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels that has the capacity to both fulfil the large scale energy needs of mankind while also reducing greenhouse emissions.

In 2005, against the backdrop of renewed UK government interest in nuclear power, Lovelock again publicly announced his support for nuclear energy, stating, "I am a Green, and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy".

Although Lovelock's interventions in the public debate on nuclear power are recent, his views on it are longstanding. In his 1988 book The Ages Of Gaia he states: "I have never regarded nuclear radiation or nuclear power as anything other than a normal and inevitable part of the environment. Our prokaryotic forebears evolved on a planet-sized lump of fallout from a star-sized nuclear explosion, a supernova that synthesised the elements that go to make our planet and ourselves."

Mass Human Extinction

Writing in the British newspaper The Independent in January 2006, Lovelock argues that, as a result of global warming, "billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable" by the end of the Twenty First century .

He claims that by the end of the century, the average temperature in temperate regions will increase by as much as 8°C and by up to 5°C in the tropics, leaving much of the world's land uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming. He suggests that "we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can."


  • Lovelock, James [1979] (2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-286218-9.
  • Lovelock, James, Michael Allaby (1983). Great Extinction. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-18011-X.
  • Lovelock, James, Michael Allaby (1984). The Greening of Mars. Warner Books. ISBN 0-446-32967-3.
  • Lovelock, James [1988] (1995). Ages of Gaia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-393-31239-9.
  • Lovelock, James [Gaia Books 1991] (2001). Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0-19-521674-1.
  • Lovelock, James (1991). Scientists on Gaia. Cambridge, Mass., USA: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-19310-8.
  • Lovelock, James (2005). Gaia: Medicine for an Ailing Planet. Gaia Books. ISBN 1-85675-231-3.
  • Lovelock, James (2000). Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860429-7. (Lovelock's autobiography)
  • Lovelock, James (2006). The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Santa Barbara (California): Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-9914-4.

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