You have probably heard about the Gaia Theory, whose name was
given by the famous writer William Golding, but who is the man behind
it? His name is Lovelock, James Ephraim Lovelock and he happens to be one of the most controversial scientists of contemporary
NASA's genius inventor
Lovelock was born on July 26th, 1919, in Letchworth Garden City in the
United Kingdom. His curriculum is quite impressive: He graduated as a chemist
from Manchester University in 1941 and in 1948 received a Ph.D. Degree in Medicine
from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1959, he also received
a D.Sc. Degree in Biophysics from London University.
However, his major achievements began the following decade when
collaborating with NASA. “In 1961, having heard of these new detectors, NASA
invited me to join with the team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who were
developing lunar and planetary landers,” he explains. “Initially, the
invitation concerned the development of methods for analysing lunar soil but
soon I became involved with NASA's quest to discover whether there was life on
Lovelock has developed more than 50 patents of different gadgets, mostly
for detectors for use in chemical analysis, and NASA has even used some of his
inventions in different explorations. One of these, the electron capture
detector, was key in the development of environmental awareness, since it
revealed for the first time the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues
and other halogen bearing chemicals. It has also helped to discover more about
the levels of nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. This
information enabled Rachel Carson to write her famous book Silent
Spring, a milestone in understanding and raising the awareness of
environmental problems in society.
His proposed approach to searching for life on Mars, based only on
chemical analysis of the Martian atmosphere, led to reflections about the
utterly different and remarkable atmosphere of our own planet. The stable
persistence in the Earth’s atmosphere of gases that quickly react with each
other could only be possible with some kind of ‘control system’, thus the Gaia
hypothesis was born.
From hypothesis to theory
So what is the Gaia Theory about? In Lovelock’s own words, “Gaia
is a theory about the Earth. It sees it as a self-regulating system keeping its
climate and its chemistry always comfortable for whatever is the contemporary
biosphere. Its major difference from older evolutionary theories, such as
Darwinism, is that it sees organisms not just adapting to the environment, but
changing it as well.”
Encouraged by Margulis, the theory was first publicly mentioned
in an article by Lovelock: Gaia as seen through the atmosphere in the Journal
Atmospheric Environment and was totally ignored during the first years
until publication in 1975's book The Quest for Gaia.
It is curious that the name of the theory did not come directly from
Lovelock, but from his good friend and neighbor, the famous writer, William
Golding. He commented to Lovelock that if he would have ever had a good theory
about the Earth, he had to find a suitable name and there was nothing better
than the Greek goddess Gaia.
Let’s go nuclear!
If you expect that Lovelock had softened his position and ideas with the
age, you could not be more wrong. Quite the opposite, the English scientist, now
in his 80s, has become even more aggressive in his words with the passage of
time. His most recent book The Revenge of Gaia, which offers quite a
pessimistic view of the heating process that the Earth has been suffering, is good
proof of his unwavering opinions.
Lovelock does not see much hope in a continuation of the balance on
Earth. Our planet will become more inhospitable during the next 100 years, and
natural disasters will lead to most of the human civilization perishing. However,
Lovelock sees this apocalyptical future as just a natural way, “Too little too
late? It may be too late to save civilization, but people will survive and
there will be another one.”
As almost the only solution, Lovelock energetically defends nuclear
power as the most effective way to solve problems, thereby following the French
model. He considers that people’s fears of nuclear power are unreasonable.
Often, Lovelock’s theories are criticized and people are advised to
approach his theories with sceptism. For example, even though he invented the
machine that helped us understand the dangers of CFCs, he also dismissed those
dangers by arguing that they couldn't do enough damage to matter. Sherry
Rowland and Mario Molina received the Nobel Prize for continuing
their research and ignoring Lovelock’s lack of concern, highlighting the fact
that the science community does not take his theories for granted.
His thoughts have encouraged open debate and there are many recognized figures
who openly disagree with him, such as For Doolittle and even Stephen
Hawkins himself. One thing is for sure though, the Gaia Theory involves such deep and
controversial thoughts that it will continue to be discussed for many years to
comes…unless Lovelock’s worst predictions come to fruition.