Creator of Gaia Theory Dies on 103rd Birthday

James Lovelock was 'half scientist and half inventor'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 27, 2022 2:26 PM CDT
Creator of Gaia Theory Dies on 103rd Birthday
Scientist and inventor James Lovelock, then 94, poses with one of his early inventions, a homemade Gas Chromatography device, used for measuring gas and molecules present in the atmosphere.   (Nicholas Ansell/PA via AP, file)

James Lovelock, the British environmental scientist whose influential Gaia theory sees the Earth as a living organism gravely imperiled by human activity, has died on his 103rd birthday. Lovelock’s family said Wednesday that he died the previous evening at his home in southwest England "surrounded by his family," the AP reports. The family said his health had deteriorated after a bad fall but that 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.

Lovelock's "breadth of knowledge extended from astronomy to zoology," the New York Times notes. In the 1940s and 1950s, he worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. Lovelock worked during the 1960s on NASA’s moon and Mars programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But he spent much of his career as an independent scientist outside of large academic institutions. Lovelock's contributions to environmental science included developing 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, saw the Earth itself as a complex, self-regulating system that created and maintained the conditions for life on the planet. The scientists said human activity had thrown the system dangerously off-kilter. A powerful communicator, Lovelock used books, speeches, and interviews to warn of the desertification, agricultural devastation, and mass migrations that climate change would bring. Initially dismissed by many scientists, the Gaia theory became influential as concern about humanity's impact on the planet grew. Lovelock did not mind being an outsider. He outraged environmentalists by supporting nuclear energy, saying it was the only way to stop global warming. In 2012, he said some of his predictions had been "alarmist."

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Roger Highfield, science director at Britain's Science Museum, said Lovelock "was a nonconformist who had a unique vantage point that came from being, as he put it, half scientist and half inventor." "Endless ideas bubbled forth from this synergy between making and thinking," Highfield said. Lovelock is survived by his wife Sandy and four children from his first marriage: Christine, Jane, Andrew, and John. "To the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and conceiver 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 mischievous sense of humor and a passion for nature." (In his last book, he predicted that humans will be replaced by cyborgs.)

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