Leading environmental scientist and creator of the Gaia hypothesis James Lovelock passed away on his 103rd birthday, a statement from his family has confirmed.
In a statement, they said that Lovelock died “at home in Dorset surrounded by family” following complications related to a fall he suffered earlier in the year.
This is everything you need to know about Lovelock.
Who was James Lovelock?
Lovelock was an English scientist, environmentalist and inventor, best known for creating the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s.
He was born on 26 July 1919 in Letchworth and, after he and his family moved to London, Lovelock attended Strand School in Tulse Hill.
Lovelock was raised as a Quaker and, speaking to Noema Magazine in 2020, said that the Quaker Sunday school he attended from the age of six was “different from any other Sunday school I had encountered”.
He said: “Religion played only a small part, and it seemed that cosmogony was the subject taught at the school.”
Cosmogony refers to the scientific study of the origins of the universe.
Talking to the Guardian in 2020, when asked if he was religious, Lovelock said: “No, I was brought up a Quaker. I was indoctrinated with the notion that God is a still, small voice within rather than some mysterious old gentleman way out in the universe.
“Intuition comes from that voice within and is a great gift for inventors.”
At first, Lovelock couldn’t afford to go to university, however he said that he regarded this as a blessing in disguise, as it meant that he wasn’t immediately trapped in the bubble of academia.
He later attended the University of Manchester at the age of 21, and graduated in 1941 as a chemist. Lovelock later earned a Ph.D degree in medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the D.Sc degree in biophysics from London University.
After leaving the University of Manchester, Lovelock took up a position with the Medical Research Council at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, working on ways in which to protect soldiers from burns. His status as a student allowed him to temporarily defer from military service during WWII, however he also registered as a conscientious objector.
Lovelock later dropped his conscientious objections in light of Nazi atrocities being committed, however, upon attempting to enlist in the armed forces, was told that his medical research was too important for him to be allowed to serve.
In 1954, Lovelock won the Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship in Medicine, and chose to spend it at Harvard University Medical School in Boston. He later resigned from his role at the National Institute in London in order to become a Professor of Chemistry at Baylor University College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Whilst in Texas, Lovelock worked with colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California on Lunar and Planetary Research.
From 1964, Lovelock operated as an independent scientist and was the author of more than 200 scientific papers.
He became a leading voice on climate change and an inventor whose creations included a highly sensitive electron capture detector to track pollutants including ozone-depleting CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons).
Over the course of his career, Lovelock received a number of prestigious awards, including the Tswett Medal in 1975, the American Chemical Society Award in Chromatography in 1980, the World Meteorological Organisation Norbert Gerbier-MUMM Award in 1988, the Dr A H Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences in 1990, the Royal Geographical Society Discovery Lifetime award in 2001 and the Wollaston Medal in 2006.
What is Gaia hypothesis?
The Gaia theory was formulated by Lovelock, and co-developed by microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.
The theory, Lovelock said, posits that the Earth is “a self-regulating system able to keep the climate and chemical composition comfortable for organisms”.
The hypothesis went against the view that the Earth was just a lump of rock and instead presented a widely different perspective, framing the planet as a complex, interactive system that can be viewed as a single organism.
The theory said that human activity had dangerously interfered with the system, with Lovelock warning about the impacts of climate change.
In 2006, Lovelock wrote: “The planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their deaths.
“But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back into the hot state it was in 55m years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendants, will die.”
In a 2011 lecture, Lovelock said that he had no plans for a comfortable retirement as it was imperative that he warn humanity about the oncoming climate crisis.
He said: “My main reason for not relaxing into contented retirement is that like most of you I am deeply concerned about the probability of massively harmful climate change and the need to do something about it now.”
In his 2020 interview with the Guardian, Lovelock said: “Up until now, the Earth system has always kept things cool on the Earth, fit for life, that is the essence of Gaia.
“It’s an engineering job and it has been well done. But I would say the biosphere and I are both in the last 1% of our lives.”
Was he married - did he have children?
Lovelock was married twice in his life - his first wife, Helen Hyslop, he married in 1942.
He and Hyslop had four children together and they were married until her death in 1989, when she passed away from multiple sclerosis.
Lovelock later married his second wife, Sandy Orchard, when he was 69-years-old.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2005, Lovelock said: “It’s traditional to think that you are ‘past it’ by the age of 69. But that’s when I met my second wife, Sandy.
“I never believed that you could fall in love in that age bracket until it happened.”
He met Orchard, an American when she approached him to speak at a conference.
For his 100th birthday, Lovelock spoke at Blenheim Palace, saying that it was where he and Sandy “fell in love”.
He said: “Sandy and I fell in love at Blenheim. I’d been to a meeting she had organised.
“Something clicked, I don’t know what. After dinner, I was feeling mellow and I went and had a pee. Just ahead of me was a group of four women talking fairly vigorously. Sandy was among them.
“Without a word from either of us, we just went straight into each other’s arms.
“Never said a word. And went down the steps. People talk far too much.
“On a matter like that, of falling in love, you should keep as quiet as possible.”
Later in their life together, Lovelock and his wife lived in Abbotsbury, near the Dorset coast.
Did he invent the microwave?
Locklove claims to have invented the microwave oven, for, in 1954, Lovelock used microwave radiation from a continuous wave magnetron to cook a potato.
In his book Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist, Lovelock wrote: “Just for fun, I connected the output of the magetron to a metal chamber in which I placed a potato.
“There was a timer, which turned on the power for the 10 minutes needed to cook this part of my lunch.
“It worked jut as any microwave oven does today and it may have been the first working microwave oven used to cook for that was then eaten.
“If it was, then I did indeed invent it. But I doubt if I did: surely some radar technician or scientist somewhere before this had trodden the same inventive path.
“If there is a real inventor of the microwave oven who feels anger or hurt at my appropriating the credit then I am truly sorry.”
The invention came about when Lovelock was attempting to devise ways to warm up hamsters that had been cryogenically frozen, as part of a study looking at cell degeneration for the National Institute for Medical Research.
When did James Lovelock die?
Lovelock passed away on Tuesday 26 July, the day of his 103rd birthday.
In a statement, his wife and children said he died at home in Dorset surrounded by family on Tuesday.
They said: “Our beloved James Lovelock died yesterday in his home surrounded by his family on his 103rd birthday.
“To the world he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and conceiver of the Gaia theory.
“To us he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humour and a passion for nature.
“Up until six months ago he was still able to walk along the coast near his home in Dorset and take part in interviews, but his health deteriorated after a bad fall earlier this year.
“He passed away at [9.55pm] of complications related to the fall.
“The funeral will be private. There will be a public memorial service later. The family requests privacy at this time.”
Lovelock is survived by his wife Sandra, daughters Christine and Jane, sons Andrew and John and his grandchildren.
Tributes for James Lovelock
Responding to the news of Lovelock’s death, Dame Mary Archer, chair of the Science Museum Group’s board of trustees, said: “Arguably the most important independent scientist of the last century, Jim Lovelock was decades ahead of his time in thinking about the Earth and climate and his unique approach was an inspiration for many.
“Originality of thought, scepticism of the status quo and above all a focus on invention lie at the heart of his remarkable contribution to science.”
Roger Highfield, science director at the museum, said: “Jim was a non-conformist 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.
“Although he is most associated with Gaia, he did an extraordinary range of research, from freezing hamsters to detecting life on Mars, popularised his ideas in many books, and he was more than happy to bristle a few feathers, whether by articulating his dislike of consensus views, formal education and committees, or by voicing his enthusiastic support for nuclear power.”
Professor Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the Met Office Hadley Centre, said Lovelock had been a source of inspiration for his entire career, and he was devastated by his death.
“Jim’s influence is widespread, profound and long-lasting,” Prof Betts said.
“He will be remembered for his warm, fun-loving personality, his truly innovative thinking, his clarity of communication, his willingness to take bold risks in developing his ideas, and his abilities to bring people together and learn from them.
“My deepest sympathy to Sandy and the rest of Jim’s family. Rest in Gaia, Jim, you will be missed.”