James Ephraim Lovelock was born on July 26, 1919 in Letchworth Garden City in the United Kingdom. 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 received the D.Sc. degree in biophysics from London University. After graduating from Manchester he started employment with the Medical Research Council at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, but five years between 1946 and 1951 were spent at the Common CoId Research Unit at Harvard Hospital in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
In 1954 he was awarded the Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine and chose to spend it at Harvard University Medical School in Boston. In 1958 he visited Yale University for a similar period. He resigned from the National Institute in London in 1961 to take up full time employment as Professor of Chemistry at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where he remained until 1964. During his stay in Texas he collaborated with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California on Lunar and Planetary Research. Since 1964 he has conducted an independent practice in science, although continuing honorary academic associations as a visiting professor, first at the University of Houston and then at the University of Reading in the U.K. Since 1982 he has been associated with the Marine Biological Association at Plymouth, first as a council member, and from 1986 to 1990 as its president.
James Lovelock is the author of approximately 200 scientific papers, distributed almost equally among topics in Medicine, Biology, Instrument Science and Geophysiology. He has filed more than 50 patents, mostly for detectors for use in chemical analysis. One of these, the electron capture detector, was important in the development of environmental awareness. It revealed for the first time the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues and other halogen bearing chemicals. This information enabled Rachel Carson to write her book, Silent Spring, often said to have initiated the awareness of environmental disturbance. Later it enabled the discovery of the presence of PCB’s in the natural environment. More recently the electron capture detector was responsible for the discovery of the global distribution of nitrous oxide and of the chlorofluorocarbons, both of which are important in the stratospheric chemistry of ozone. Some of his inventions were adopted by NASA in their programme of planetary exploration. He was awarded by NASA three certificates of recognition for these.
He is the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory) and has written four books on the subject: Gaia: a new look at life on Earth, (Oxford University Press, 1979); The Ages of Gaia, (W. W. Norton, 1988); Gaia: the practical science of planetary medicine, (Gaia Books, 1991), and Homage to Gaia (2000).
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974 and in 1975 received the Tswett Medal for Chromatography. Earlier he received a CIBA Foundation Prize for research in Ageing. In 1980 he received the American Chemical Society’s award for Chromatography and in 1986 the Silver Medal and Prize of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. In 1988 he was a recipient of the Norbert Gerbier Prize of the World Meteorological Organization, and in 1990 was awarded the first Amsterdam Prize for the Environment by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1996 he received both the Nonino Prize and the Volvo Environment Prize, and in 1997 Japan’s Blue Planet Prize. He has received honorary Doctorates in Science from the University of East Anglia 1982, Exeter University 1988, Plymouth Polytechnic (now Plymouth University) 1988, Stockholm University 1991, University of Edinburgh 1993, University of Kent and the University of East London in 1996, and from the University of Colorado in 1997. He was made a C.B.E. by Her Majesty the Queen in 1990.
James Lovelock’s first interest is the Life Sciences, originally as Medical Research but more recently in Geophysiology, the systems science of the Earth. His second interest, that of instrument design and development, has often interacted with the first to their mutual benefit.
He is at present an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford University.
Some historical comments (by James Lovelock himself)
When devising a series of ionisation detectors for gas chromatography in the mid 1950’s I had no notion that one of them, the electron capture detector, would significantly affect the development of environmental thinking. It was invented in 1957, and is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytical methods in existence; moreover it is specifically sensitive to those chemicals that are a threat to the environment. Its use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment, and to Rachel Carson’s book, The Silent Spring, which can be said to have started the environmental movement. It was later used to discover and measure the abundance of PCBs, chlorofluorcarbons and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Most recently, the detector has made possible a system of atmospheric and oceanic tracer technology. Perfluorocarbons, which are othervise inert and harmless, are easily detected tracers by electron capture. This system has enabled meteorologists to follow the movement of air masses across continents and is now finding use in ocean research.
In 1961, having heard of these new detectors, NASA invited me to join with the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory who were developing lunar and planetary landers. 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 Mars. In a letter to Nature in 1965, I proposed some physical tests for the presence of planetary life. One of these was a top down view of the whole planet instead of a local search at the site of landing. The test was simply to analyse the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere. If the planet were lifeless then it would be expected to have an atmosphere determined by physics and chemistry alone and be close to the chemical equilibrium state. But if the planet bore life, organisms at the surface would be obliged to use the atmosphere as a source of raw materials and as a depository for wastes. Such a use of the atmosphere would change its chemical composition. It would depart from equilibrium in a way that would show the presence of life. Dian Hitchcock joined me then and together we examined atmospheric evidence from the infra-red astronomy of Mars (Hitchcock and Lovelock 1967). We compared this evidence with that available about the sources and sinks of the gases in the atmosphere of the one planet we knew bore life, Earth. We found an astonishing difference between the two atmospheres. Mars was close to chemical equilibrium and dominated by carbon dioxide, but the Earth was in a state of deep chemical disequilibrium. In our atmosphere carbon dioxide is a mere trace gas. The coexistence of abundant oxygen with methane and other reactive gases, are conditions that would be impossible on a lifeless planet. Even the abundant nitrogen and water are difficult to explain by geochemistry. No such anomalies are present in the atmospheres of Mars or Venus, and their existence in the Earth’s atmosphere signals the presence of living organisms at the surface. Sadly, we concluded that Mars is lifeless now, although it may once have had life.
Thinking about the profound difference between the Earth’s atmosphere and those of the other planets led me to my other principal research during the past twenty years, a hypothesis that the Earth is a self regulating system able to keep its climate and chemical composition comfortable for the organisms that inhabit it. This, the Gaia Hypothesis, now Gaia Theory, is still up for trial. A common criticism is of teleology. This accusation is unjust; neither purpose or foresight were ever claimed. Whether right or wrong, it is a testable theory and capable of making ‘risky’ predictions.
In the course of expeditions to gather evidence for tests of the Gaia Hypothesis I made several interesting discoveries. One, made in 1971, was that the chlorofluorocarbons were distributed throughout the atmosphere and at an average abundance of 50 parts per trillion, suggesting the absence of any sink for these gases. This was the evidence that allowed Molina and Rowland to develop their theory of ozone depletion. On this expedition I also found the ubiquitous distribution in the ocean of methyl iodide, dimethyl sulphide and carbon disulphide and carbon tetrachloride. The presence of methyl iodide and dimethyl sulphide was sought as confirmation of a prediction from Gaia that there should be a large enough emission of these gases from the oceans to balance the natural sulphur and iodine budgets. Preliminary confirmation came from these first measurements in 1971-72, complete confirmation was made independently by M. O. Andreae. Later, when considering the prediction from Gaia of climate regulation, Charlson, Lovelock, Andreae and Warren, proposed that cloud density was modulated by the abundance of atmospheric dimethyl sulphide, and that this in turn changed the Earth’s albedo and mean surface temperature. This proposal was published as a Nature paper 1987 and is still under test. Gaia Theory also offered an interpretation of the long term regulation of carbon dioxide and climate through biologically assisted rock weathering. This proposal was confirmed by Schwartzman and Volk, in 1989.
Other environmental contributions were the discovery of methyl chloride as a natural atmospheric gas (1975). An estimate (1977) of the hydroxyl abundance of the atmosphere from measurements of the abundance of methyl chloroform, a man-made chemical whose principal sink is reaction with hydroxyl. The first atmospheric halocarbon monitoring station was established at Adrigole in Ireland in the 1970’s. It later became one of the five globally distributed stations that established the atmospheric lifetimes of the chlorofluorocarbons.
Significant scientific contributions
In 1952 I developed a quantitative theory of the damage suffered by living cells when frozen and thawed. My experiments had shown that damage was due to the concentration of salt and other solutes when ice separated as a pure substance. I was also able to explain the protective action of glycerol and neutral solutes and predicted successfully that dimethyl sulphoxide would be an excellent protective agent. I participated in the team that successfully froze and thawed whole animals, hamsters.
My other researches included an investigation of the pathways for the spread of respiratory infection, especially the common cold, and the design of means for its prevention.
Among my inventions are detectors and other devices for use in gas chromatography. The argon detector was the first practical sensitive detector. It realized the potential of the gas chromatography. The electron capture detector was invented in 1957, and is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytical methods in existence. Its use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment and can be said to have started the environmental movement. The same detector was later used to discover and measure the abundance of chlorofluorocarbons and of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. Another invention was the palladium transmodulator, a device whose use was crucial for the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer experiment aboard the Viking space craft that landed on Mars. Most recently I developed a tracer method for mass transport measurements in the atmosphere and oceans. It uses perfluorocarbons as tracers and detects them by electron capture. It has enabled meteorologists to follow the movement of air masses across continents and is now finding use in ocean research.
Twenty years ago I postulated that the Earth is a self-regulating system able to keep the climate and chemical composition comfortable for organisms. This, the Gaia Hypothesis, is now the Gaia Theory, with a mathematical basis, and is still up for trial. A common criticism is of teleology. This accusation is unjust; neither purpose nor foresight were ever claimed. Whether right or wrong, it is a testable theory and capable of making ‘risky’ predictions. One of these was that there should be a large enough emission of dimethyl sulphide from the oceans to balance the natural sulphur budget. Preliminary confirmation came from my own measurements in 1972; complete confirmation was made independently by M. O. Andreae. Later, when considering the prediction from Gaia of climate regulation, Charleson, Lovelock, Andreae and Warren proposed that cloud density was modulated by the abundance of atmospheric dimethyl sulphide, and that this in turn changed the Earth’s albedo and mean surface temperature. This proposal was published as a Nature paper in 1987 and is still under test. Gaia Theory also offered an interpretation of the long-term regulation of carbon dioxide and climate through biologically assisted rock weathering. This proposal was confirmed by Schwartzman and Volk in 1989.
At present an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford University
(1941) B.Sc. in Chemistry from Manchester University
(1948) Ph.D. in Medicine from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
(1959) D.Sc. in Biophysics from London University
1954-55 Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine at Harvard University
1958-59 Visiting Scientist, Yale University Medical School, USA
Prizes, honours and awards
1955 CIBA Foundation Award for research in Ageing
1974 Made a Fellow of the Royal Society
1975 Tswett Medal for Chromatography
1980 American Chemical Society’s Award for Chromatography
1986 The Silver Medal and Prize of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory
1988 Norbert Gerbier Prize of the World Meteorological Associatio
1990 Amsterdam Prize for the Environment awarded by the
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences
1990 Made a C.B.E. by Her Majesty the Queen
1996 The Nonino Prize
1996 Volvo Environment Prize
1997 Blue Planet Prize
Honorary degrees (Doctorates in Science)
1982 University of East Anglia
1988 Plymouth Polytechnic (now Plymouth University)
1988 Exeter University
1991 Stockholm University
1993 University of Edinburgh
1996 University of Kent
1996 University of East London
1997 University of Colorado, Boulder (USA)
Books of James E. Lovelock
Gaia: a new look at life on Earth, (Oxford University Press, 1979)
The Ages of Gaia, (W. W. Norton, 1988)
Gaia: the practical science of planetary medicine, (Gaia Books, 1991)
Homage to Gaia (Oxford University Press, 2000)
For further information on James Lovelock’s outstanding life, we suggest that you read his autobiography "Homage to GAIA".