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James Lovelock, scientist behind ‘living’ Earth Gaia theory, dies at 103

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As the British research vessel RRS Shackleton headed for Antarctica in 1971, scientist James Lovelock was a familiar presence on deck with his invention: an ultra-sensitive instrument capable of detecting virtually any trace of pollutants and other environmental toxins. .

Even in the most remote regions of the South Atlantic, Dr. Lovelock’s device revealed that the air carried chlorofluorocarbons that were then used in aerosols, refrigerants and other commercial applications.

It was a time when the main threads of Dr. Lovelock’s groundbreaking work and theories began to weave into one. He was already exploring his hypothesis that the Earth itself is a fully intertwined ecosystem – “like a gigantic living thing” – that can self-regulate to sustain life.

The ship’s readings brought a sharper edge to his Gaia theory, named after the Greek goddess who personified the Earth. He showed that no place on the planet was immune to human-made threats to the environment, discoveries that helped launch Dr. Lovelock’s reputation as a planetary guardian with a sick patient.

“The biosphere and I are both in the last 1% of our lives,” Dr Lovelock told the Guardian in 2020. It was an environmental warning repeated in many variations over a career of over 80 years of remarkable scientific scope and originality – winning widespread praise as a visionary and despised as an apocalyptic fatalist.

These overlapping roles – inventor, researcher, moralist, provocateur – were carried with pride by Dr Lovelock, who died on July 26 at his home in Abbotsbury, on England’s south-west Dorset coast, the day of his 103rd birthday.

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British journalist Jonathan Watts has called Dr Lovelock “the Forrest Gump of science”: he comes at the right time to have a major influence on environmental studies, the understanding of climate change and the interconnectedness of the global ecosystem.

“He was the ultimate big thinker on the subject,” said Watts, the Guardian’s global environmental editor, who writes a biography of Dr Lovelock.

Dr. Lovelock used his radical theory of Gaia as an entry point for specific challenges aimed at relieving a planet under stress. He broke with eco-allies to promote nuclear energy and supported agro-giant farming and genetic modification for more sustainable crops. He ignored renewable energy policies and carbon reduction targets as being too progressive. Just “faffer,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s up to humanity to make huge, groundbreaking accommodations to live with Earth — “a super-tech, low-energy civilization,” he wrote — or the planet. to find a way to live without humans.

“The question is not how humanity can retain planetary dominance, which has always been an illusion,” Dr. Lovelock wrote in “The Revenge of Gaia” (2006), part of a series of “Gaia” books over four decades. “It’s about whether humanity can use science and technology to engineer a sustainable retirement.”

James Ephraim Lovelock was born in Letchworth Garden City, about 30 miles north of London, on July 26, 1919. He lived his early years with his grandparents, then joined his parents in Brixton Hill, London, where his father ran an art shop and his mother worked in the municipal offices.

He said his early interest in nature stemmed from hiking in the hills of Hertfordshire with his father, who taught him the names of various plants and insects. Dr Lovelock graduated from the University of Manchester in 1941 during World War II, but was granted conscientious objector status due to his family’s Quaker pacifist beliefs.

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He joined the government-run Medical Research Council, where he would spend the next two decades while pursuing a doctorate in medicine in 1949 at the University of London. As he took on new projects, he realized that the equipment of the day was not up to the task. So he designed his own, which led to more than 60 patents ranging from a method for freezing bull semen to a blood pressure monitor for divers.

In 1957, he discovered his most ambitious invention: the electron capture detector, a portable device that looked a bit like a hose nozzle and could detect minute evidence of man-made chemicals such as pesticides. It was one of the most important analytical instruments of the 20th century, compared by French philosopher Bruno Latour to Galileo’s telescope, but peering into our planet’s interior rather than the heavens.

The sensor data became part of the scientific basis for Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring”, which helped start the environmental movement, and later was cited in the banning of chemicals such as pesticides. DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in some countries. .

The device, equipped with a gas chromatograph, accompanied Dr. Lovelock during his trip to Antarctica, and his discoveries helped confirm the links between chlorofluorocarbons and the hole in the ozone layer. (Chlorofluorocarbons have been banned in most countries, including the United States.)

At the dawn of the space race in 1961, Dr. Lovelock was recruited by NASA for projects that included the search for life on Mars. The first stirrings of the Gaia theory came when Dr. Lovelock and a colleague at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, noticed the stability of the atmospheres on Mars and Venus, when Earth was “in a deep state.” of imbalance”. written in “Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine” (1991).

“That’s when I glimpsed Gaia,” Dr. Lovelock wrote in 1991. “A brilliant thought occurred to me.” A neighbor in England, “Lord of the Flies” author William Golding, suggested wrapping ideas around the name of the Greek goddess.

Dr. Lovelock began unfolding the theory in the late 1960s in academic papers and lectures. The response was mostly dismissive. Some researchers have dismissed the claim that ecosystems – from bacteria underground to ice crystals in the stratosphere – could function in a large network. Evolutionary researchers have said this goes against the laws of natural selection.

Others have called Dr. Lovelock pushing Age of Aquarius quasi-science with a luster of Mother Earth spirituality.

“I suspect the Earth behaves like a gigantic living thing,” Dr Lovelock said in a 1969 speech, echoing an 18th-century precursor, Scottish geologist James Hutton, who described the planet as a “superorganism “.

A few colleagues, including evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, became early acolytes and helped generalize Gaia and the fundamentals of a discipline known as Earth system science.

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Dr. Lovelock remained a tireless champion of Gaia, giving interviews just weeks before his death. He favored simple analogies to explain what he saw as a world on the brink. One story was his imagined Daisy World: the hypothetical planet’s black daisies absorb light and warm the planet; white daisies reflect light and keep it cool from the planet; a change in balance could be catastrophic.

He married Sandra Orchard in 1991. Besides his wife, he is survived by four children from his first marriage to Helen Hyslop, who died in 1989; and grandchildren.

At a conference in 2011, he said he had no plans to retire due to the urgency of climate change. “The need to do something about it now,” he said.

His final years, in a cottage by the sea, were spent oscillating between optimism about humanity’s resilience and fear of its unwillingness to face the perils at hand.

“The Gaia hypothesis is for those who enjoy walking or just standing and looking, wondering about the Earth and the life on it, and speculating about the consequences of our own being here,” he said. wrote in “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth,” her seminal 1979 book. “It is an alternative to that pessimistic view that sees nature as a primal force to be mastered and conquered.”