IIn science and life, the reward for an inquisitive mind is to search for something and find something else that is more interesting. so it was James Lovelock Gaia Theory Explains the outlook that has made him one of the most influential thinkers of the last century, and has encouraged me to apply the same approach in his interview over the past two years for an autobiography.
What she reveals is that, even beyond the obituaries and tributes that followed his death in 103, there was more to Jim – and his impact on the modern world – than almost anyone realizes.
Lovelock is celebrated first and foremost for the Gaia theory, the most comprehensive way to understand life on Earth, but the origins of this hypothesis may surprise many of his closest followers. He is known to have worked for Britain’s Ministry of Defense, but the extent of his role in protecting the population and the intelligence services (he half jokingly described himself as a “Mini Q”) was largely concealed by the Official Secrets Act.
It was a privilege to have access to such a mind, a breadth of experience which showed how the history of science is shaped by relationships as much as the brilliant ideas of genius.
Jim was also more playful, charming, and kind than his solo reputation would suggest. I think empathy was part of the reason he agreed to let me write his autobiography. I had pitched a pitch after first meeting him in summer 2020 and had been waiting months for a response. Then my life was turned upside down by a cardiac arrest and it took three shocks to revive me.
While I was recovering in a hospital bed, Jim picked the perfect moment to say he looked forward to sharing his life stories with me and added some words of encouragement. “I was also in my fifties when I had my first heart attack, but lived to 100. There is so much life inside of you even now.” It immediately became my inspiration for Life 2.0.
With this beginning, the relationship of the biographer has always been somewhat unusual. I wasn’t in the mood—in fact, I wasn’t in a physical state—to push my provocative line of questioning. I simply wanted to listen and learn, and make the experience for both of us as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. The site definitely helped.
Jim, a nature connoisseur who had always preferred quiet locations free from unwanted distractions, lived with his wife, Sandy, in one of Dorset’s most beautiful outback – a former Coast Guard cottage a stone’s throw from the pebbles of Chesil Beach. I’d stay in a nearby caravan park or thatched tavern and walk to the coast every morning, along the fence and across the fields to Jim’s house, spending hours talking, and coming back in time for a late lunch. Over the course of nearly two years, I’ve gone up and down this slope 34 times.
I came to see these visits as a form of mutual therapy. For Jim, I think it was a last chance to load his life up. In his latest book, Novacene, he theorized that in the transition to a world governed by artificial intelligence, energy is increasingly being converted into data.
I saw myself as part of that process, recording every word and scanning memories for hidden details. Several times, I asked Jim how he saw himself transforming after death. The first time, he replied, “Death means being a part of Gaia. All the atoms are mixed in with the rest, except of course hydrogen, which escapes into space.”
Later, I popped the question in Novacene terms: Will Jim become part of the scene or the scene of ideas? The latter, as he half-jokingly said, “will be up to you,” i.e. autobiography. He was curious about death, as he was about everything else. When we were out on a picnic by the sea, he sarcastically asked me if I had any consciousness after my heart stopped: “What’s the situation there?”
He has come close to discovering this many times in his life. Jim was treated eight times for skin cancer, had open heart surgery, lost a kidney, suffered from pneumonia and tuberculosis, and spent most of his career dealing with toxins, radioactive materials and explosives. He also used himself as a guinea pig for burn and choking tests during World War II. (The only time Jim tried real hamsters was when he frozen one and brought it back to life during his cryobiology phase in the 1950s.)
In his later years, Jim’s health was fickle. On the bad days, he was clearly weaker, and relied more on photos and documents. On the good days, he entertained me with long stories and with such energy that I had to stop, exhausted after nearly four hours. His short-term memory was straying, but his recollection of names, places, chemical compounds, physical formulas, and dirty limericks from more than 50 years ago is astonishing.
Talking to Jim means traveling back in time. I’ve come to see him as a genius science version of the Forrest Gump, who grappled with many of the most important scientific events of the 20th century, shaping the world at every turn.
He was part of NASA’s missions to find life on Mars, performed atomic bomb drop tests in California, issued some of the first warnings about climate disruption, and was the first to discover man-made gases accumulating in the stratosphere, which led to a global debate about the ozone hole. . He was also a dedicated father who entertained his children in Gandalf style with custom fireworks and homemade bombs.
Jim was the most versatile: a physician of medicine who conducted world-leading studies in fields ranging from chemistry and virology to exobiology and atmospheric physics. He worked for Shell, NASA, Hewlett-Packard, Bay Chemicals, Reading University and the intelligence services, yet he managed to be a prominent environmental and industrial thinker.
He was an engineer at least as a theorist. He bought a lathe to make his own tools in a home laboratory he built in a barn. His invention of the electron capture detector played a major role in the development of the environmental movement because it was the world’s most sensitive device for measuring the accumulation of toxins in soil, water, and air.
Jim was humble. “I have never considered myself a vaguely genius,” he told me, but looked at his course with startled admiration. “It’s an extraordinary life I’ve lived.”
He saw his true talent as the ability to transcend boundaries and combine fields. “My role was to bring separate things and ideas together and make the whole more than the sum of the parts.”
This put him at odds with many of his contemporaries in academia, who built their careers by specializing in more dispersed fields. Jim complained about his epic intellectual battles in the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle: “The problem with science is that it’s more and more about less and less.”
They were enraged by the Gaia hypothesis, a new way of understanding the Earth as a self-organizing system. This was radical in the 1970s and 1980s because it challenged the dominant neo-Darwinian view that the environment shaped life.
The Gaia theory—developed by Lovelock in collaboration with Diane Hitchcock and Lynne Margulis—goed one step further by suggesting that the exact opposite was true: life shapes the environment. The idea that algae and other not-so-luscious little creatures do most of the hard work in maintaining the chemical balance of the atmosphere was considered strange before Gaia, but is now an essential part of Earth system science.
Jim went so far as to say that the planet behaves like a living being – a metaphor that angered neo-Darwinists, but ensured that these more comprehensive theories spread beyond the confines of academia to become dogma in New Age religions and part of modern popular culture.
He also made Jim something of a guru, with influence spreading to Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, Richard Branson and Vivienne Westwood. “They are all looking to me for guidance on saving the world,” Jim told me, “but I’m not sure I can help.” “I can’t be responsible for the entire planet. I’m doing my best.”
Like everyone else, it was a mass of contradictions. At various times over the past 30 years, he has declared himself pro- and anti-Green, memorably predicting impending climate catastrophe only to berate himself for being so anxious a few years later.
Towards the end, it was once again full of foreboding, and explored the possibility that the Covid pandemic was a Gaian negative feedback mechanism to reduce human pressure on the Earth system. More than once, he compared Gaia’s woes to his health: “I can understand you, old lady. We are both in a similar problem.”
I will miss those conversations greatly. Although Jim often graciously mocked Guardian’s values and I occasionally caught my eye with his more conservative views, I cherished his company and was grateful for the hospitality of both he and Sandy. This wasn’t my usual journalistic practice, but the closer we got, the more open he was about sensitive topics.
He said that at this point in life, he can tell me things no one has ever told, which means a much more personal and political perspective on the way scientific history is made. We never argued. I was there to ask, to listen, and most of all, to try to understand how Jim became Jim and how his views developed.
Curiosity prompted him. He was pleased with the accuracy. But it wasn’t just about science and data, it was about intuition and feeling. That’s why Jim’s theories continue to gain traction and importance. One of his favorite poems was Philip Larkin’s Tomb of Arundel. He can read the last syllable, which now seems more convenient than ever.
time converted them to
lying. stone fidelity
They hardly meant to be
Their last rank, proof
Our instinct is almost right:
What will remain of us is love.