Nature

James Lovelock, creator of Gaia ecology theory, dies at 103


LONDON — James Lovelock, the British environmental scientist whose influential Gaia theory views the Earth as a living organism gravely threatened by human activity, died on his 103rd birthday.

Lovelock’s family said on Wednesday he had died the previous evening at his home in South West England “surrounded by his family”. The family said his health had deteriorated after a bad fall, but until six months ago Lovelock ‘was still able to walk along the coast near his home in Dorset and take part in interviews’ .

Born in 1919 and raised in London, Lovelock studied chemistry, medicine and biophysics in the UK and the US.

In the 1940s and 1950s, he worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Some of his experiments focused on the effect of temperature on living organisms and involved freezing hamsters and then thawing them. The animals survived.

Lovelock worked in the 1960s on NASA’s Lunar and Mars programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But he has spent much of his career as an independent scientist outside of major academic institutions.

Lovelock’s contributions to environmental science included the development of a highly sensitive electron capture detector to measure ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and pollutants in air, soil and water .

The Gaia hypothesis, developed by Lovelock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis and first proposed in the 1970s, viewed the Earth itself as a complex, self-regulating system that created and maintained the conditions for life on the planet. Scientists said human activity had dangerously thrown the system out of whack.

A powerful communicator, Lovelock used books, speeches and interviews to warn of the desertification, agricultural devastation and mass migration that climate change would bring.

“The biosphere and I are both in the last 1% of our lives,” Lovelock told The Guardian newspaper in 2020.

Initially dismissed by many scientists, the Gaia theory has become influential as concern over humanity’s impact on the planet has grown, not least because of its power as a metaphor. Gaia is the Greek goddess of the Earth.

Lovelock didn’t care about being a stranger. He outraged many environmentalists by supporting nuclear power, saying it was the only way to stop global warming.

“Opposition to nuclear energy is based on an irrational fear fueled by Hollywood fiction, green lobbies and the media,” he wrote in 2004. “These fears are unwarranted and nuclear energy from its inception in 1952 proved to be the safest. from all energy sources.

Roger Highfield, Scientific Director of Britain’s Science Museum, said Lovelock “was a maverick who had a unique point of view which came from being, as he put it, half scientist and half inventor”.

“Endless ideas sprang from this synergy between doing and thinking,” Highfield said, citing “Lovelock’s extraordinary range of research, from freezing hamsters to detecting life on Mars.”

Lovelock is survived by his wife Sally and his children Christine, Jane, Andrew and John.

“Around the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and originator of the Gaia theory,” they said in a statement. “To us he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a playful sense of humor and a passion for nature.”

The family said there would be a private funeral, followed by a public memorial service at a later date.

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