Paris (AFP)- Independent British scientist James Lovelock, who died on his 103rd birthday, was hugely influential for his Gaia theory that the Earth is one self-regulating system – and later for his dire warnings about climate change.
In a broad career that spanned more than three-quarters of a century, Lovelock worked on viruses, the ozone layer, told NASA there was no life on Mars, and contributed to shape – even sometimes reluctantly – the environmental movement.
His ideas were often at odds with conventional wisdom, prompting admiration and sometimes defamation from his peers. He often had to wait for the world to catch up.
The unorthodox scientist, inventor and author worked in a barn-turned-laboratory for decades, though the price of that freedom was a lack of institutional support.
On the eve of his 101st birthday in 2020, Lovelock told AFP he was enjoying being locked down with his wife in the south of England as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country.
“I grew up as an only child, hardly meeting anyone – it’s not a big deal for me,” he said, adding that the sunny weather and the lack of other people were ” extremely desirable”.
Despite his declared antisocial tendencies, Lovelock was unfailingly polite and almost mischievously charming.
And as always forging his own path, he said the world had “overreacted” to Covid.
“Climate change is more dangerous to life on Earth than almost any disease imaginable,” he said.
“If we don’t do something about it, we will find ourselves pulled off the planet.”
Born July 26, 1919, Lovelock grew up in south London between the two world wars, starting out as a photographic chemist.
In 1948 he obtained an MD and worked in the virus department of the British National Institute for Medical Research for two decades.
In 1957, he invented the machine used to detect the hole in the ozone layer.
In the early 1960s, when NASA was determined to find life on Mars, Lovelock was under contract at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California.
But Lovelock told his employers there was almost certainly no life on Mars – then designed an experiment to prove it.
A decade later, he announced his Gaia theory, describing Earth as an interconnected superorganism.
In one fell swoop, it helped redefine the way science views the relationship between our inanimate planet and the life it supports.
At first, the notion was ridiculed by his peers and was even embraced by “Mother Earth” conservationists, which further annoyed the hard-nosed empiricist.
By the 1990s, however, the complex interaction of all life forms with the water, air and rocks around them – Earth’s geo-bio-chemical balancing act – was accepted by much as self-evident.
Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said the Gaia theory has galvanized a new generation of leading Earth system scientists.
“Our academic careers are all inspired, in one way or another, by James Lovelock,” he told AFP just months before the scientist’s death.
“He was one of the giants on whose shoulders we all stand.”
Lovelock later became known as a prophet of climate catastrophe with his 2006 book “The Revenge of Gaia” and its 2009 sequel “The Vanishing Face of Gaia”, although he later backtracked on his earlier predictions. disastrous.
Never afraid of unconventional thinking, Lovelock said humanity could buy time with ambitious technological solutions, many of which remain deeply controversial in climate circles.
“Many different ways to keep the Earth cool have been suggested,” he told AFP in 2020.
“One idea that I find appealing is a sunshade in heliocentric orbit” – basically a giant sunshade in space.
While Lovelock was known for his willingness to take an unorthodox stance, other scientists said he was also keen to collaborate with others.
“He will be remembered for his warm and cheerful personality, his truly innovative thinking, his clarity of communication, his willingness to take bold risks in the development of his ideas and his ability to bring people together and learn from them” , said Richard Betts, head of climate impacts research at the UK Met Office Hadley Centre.
In 2020, AFP asked Lovelock what he would most like to be remembered for.
“The concept of the self-regulating Earth, I guess,” he replied, saying he had his NASA career to thank for “stumbled upon” Gaia.
And he was optimistic about the significance of his legacy.
“It is as important, in its own way, as Darwin’s thoughts on evolution,” he said.
“We are both students of this great system that we live in.”
© 2022 AFP