António Rolo Duarte
Unlike other influential alumni from the University of Manchester, James Lovelock does not have a building, lecture theatre or event series named after him. In fact, until we invited him for an interview, he had never heard back from his alma mater. And it has been 74 years since he graduated from Manchester with a degree in chemistry.
We could not help but be surprised. An eternal Nobel Prize candidate, Lovelock has been named “the elder statesman of science” (Independent) and "the most influential scientist and writer since Charles Darwin" (Irish Times). He was the one to come up with the Gaia Theory and shape the climate change debate, after working at the Ministry of Defence, the Medical Research Council, Harvard, Yale and NASA, sharing a desk with Carl Sagan and inventing instruments that can now be found in such remote locations as Planet Mars.
That was why we gladly accepted his suggestion of travelling down to the southwest of England and talking to him at his beautiful seaside cottage, on a sunny afternoon a few weeks back. In between sips of tea, we found out that at 96 years old, Lovelock has no plans for retirement. He sees age as something interesting – not threatening – and confesses to have just started a work of fiction, believe it or not, which should take him between two and three years to complete.
I know you are still very young, but I read somewhere that you were even younger when you studied at the University of Manchester…
Yes, that is quite accurate. I studied in Manchester about 74 years ago. In pre-World War II it was very unusual for people to go to university, only about one per cent of the population did, but I wanted to be a scientist and knew that I had to have a degree or I could not go on to be one.
So you only went to university to get a diploma?
Exactly. I didn’t work very hard, I only got a bottom second, because I could not be bothered. All I wanted was that piece of paper. But it did turn out to be an end in itself because I loved Manchester, I really, really enjoyed it.
You seem quite critical of university degrees…
Well, probably because I think I learned more science at a photography firm I worked for in London, for example, than I ever learned at university.
What did you learn there?
I think the first thing I learned there, which universities never teach, was a kind of brainwash that I got right from the beginning by the boss of the firm. He said “Whatever you do my boy, you must not cheat. You will find some of the analysis and things like that quite difficult but don’t worry, if you can’t manage, I’ll show you how.” Of course you don’t get that at a university. At university so long as you understand things and you can tick the boxes, then that is all you need. It is rather worrying.
What was the best part of being in Manchester then?
I think it was joining the Manchester University Catholic Society. I am not religious but there were a wonderful lot of girls in the catholic society, mostly Irish, and it was intriguing that they were also quite intellectual, quite argumentative. It was a good student time.
And what about your course? Any favorite lecturers?
I was lucky because my professor was Alexander Todd, who was probably one of the best chemists in the country, if not the world. He subsequently got a Nobel Prize for discovering all of the basic units that go to make up DNA and RNA, so I could not have done better. He later moved from Manchester to Cambridge, but of course we got the best of him before that. He was in his mid-thirties and full of energy.
What about campus, I suppose it must have been very different going around back then compared to now…
Well, it was a pretty international university already, for example. We had quite a few students who were from West Africa, I think mainly Nigerians, and they were a wonderfully jolly lot and joined in with university activities. I don’t think there was any racism to speak of. The only ones that seemed to be lost, to an extent, were the Arabs. They tended to gather in small groups that you couldn’t penetrate. It may be that they were Islamic in those days to a very strong extent and felt that they were, as the Catholics would put it, in the proximate occasion of mortal sin [laughs].
I decided to make an instrument, which had almost everything you would expect in an ordinary microwave oven, and put the animals in it. It was great. You could set the timer and suddenly the hamsters would wake up.
Speaking of mortal sin, after leaving Manchester you then went on to become a very successful scientist and at one point you apparently decided to start burning your own skin with heat radiation instead of using lab rabbits for tests.
Yes, I got burned to a very considerable extent. Most of the skin of both my arms was burned right the way down and all sorts of levels, from first degree burns to third degree burns.
How does one decide to burn himself?
Well what would you do? Would you want to burn rabbits?
I would prefer that neither got burned.
Well, it had to be done and that was the only way of doing it. Also the whole atmosphere of the country in those days was utterly different. We were in the middle of a quite desperate war and you felt that if people were dying at sea to bring food to you, the very least you could do was that, even if it meant getting severely burned.
Sounds painful though…
At the beginning, yes, but the interesting thing was I had a colleague who did the same thing and after about a week both of us experienced a kind of brain change and suddenly the burns no longer became painful, all there was from the burns was a sense of pressure. It was good for parties because it meant that if I got sufficiently drunk I could take someone’s cigarette and put it on my skin and impress people that way.
Some would certainly be more impressed by your work as an inventor. You claim to have invented the microwave oven, for example.
That is not exactly true. The patent of the microwave oven is held by the American firm Raytheon, who invented it in 1948. But as the story goes, one of my jobs at one point was to find the cause of damage to living cells and tissue in freezing. There was an exception amongst animals that you could freeze and bring back to life and that was the hamster. My biological colleagues didn’t have that same kind of feeling about pain and damage that I had and they would quite happily put red hot spoons on the frozen animals’ chest to heat up their heart so that the blood started circulating and they would come to life. But I decided to make an instrument, which had almost everything you would expect in an ordinary microwave oven, and put the animals in it. It was great. You could set the timer and suddenly the hamsters would wake up.
So you didn’t think of using the microwave oven for, say, heating up food instead of hamsters?
I actually cooked my lunch on it on one occasion just as a demo and that is why I said I had invented it, because I don’t think anybody else had gone that far and make an embodiment of an actual oven. But I wouldn’t claim to be the one that first had the idea of using microwaves for cooking.
What about the Electron Capture Detector?
Ah yes, that is the invention that kept me most busy. I invented the ECD almost sixty years ago, at the end of the 1950s.
But it is the American government that holds the patent on it...
I know, they stole it. I had invented the ECD in Britain but I made it into a practical device that people can use later, when I was at Yale. When I patented it then, I got a letter from the US government asking that I sign it immediately to them. Shortly after that, there was a letter from the dean at the medical school at Yale saying “please sign that letter because the government is threatening to shut off all of our grants if you don’t”. I didn’t realize it was a valuable invention so I thought, heavens, I don’t want to be landed with causing the shutdown of the entire medical department at Yale. So I happily – well, not happily – signed it.
But then you ended up working for NASA, the American space agency.
Well, by the time the 1960s started, NASA wanted to do lunar and planetary missions, so they looked around to find someone who could build sensitive equipment that could be carried on the small rockets they had then. And they came to me.
Is that how two of your instruments ended up in Mars?
It all leads to it, yes. In 1961 I got this incredible letter from NASA asking if I would want to be an experimenter on their first lunar and planetary missions. I had read science fiction since I was a kid so I just couldn’t refuse. It was great fun.
You were the first person to detect the presence of Chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs, the particles that cause the destruction of the ozone layer] in the atmosphere but it was Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina who went on to win the Nobel Prize after they expanded on your findings. Did you ever feel like that should be your Nobel Prize?
Well, naturally I did and so did quite a few other people. But you have to remember that there is much more to it than that. Those things do not happen simply.
You then opposed Sherwood and Molina when testifying before the American congress about their model of the ozone layer.
Yes, it was rather fun having to oppose Rowlands and Molina. I was the second to speak after them and Rowlands, who gave their speech, very foolishly talked science as if he were talking to science students, when politicians are never scientists. But then when it was my turn to speak, I told them that a model is very much like a recipe for baking a cake. Everything depends on what ingredients you put on it. And the problem with Rowland and Molina’s model was not the ingredients that they were putting in, but the ingredients that they had left out. You see, now I was talking the politicians’ language. And that was the start of the process of finding safe replacements for the CFCs.
In the past you worked at the Ministry of Defence, the Medical Research Council, Harvard, Yale, NASA, among others. Which one was your favorite?
Without doubt, the old Medical Research Council was by far the best employer anybody could ever have. The reason it was so good is it was a civil service department that was not responsible to any ministry or political department. It was by some strange quirk only responsible to the monarchy. Now, the monarchy didn’t really care about what we did. And as a result the money the Medical Research Council had was voted for by parliament. Each year they voted a sum, and they never really bothered about it so you could guarantee the same every year, more or less. What the directors then did was decide that they would not waste more than five per cent of it on administration. So the rest of it went to science. The Medical Research Council alone got more Nobel prizes over 10 years that the whole of France did, which gives you an idea of the excellence.
In 1961 I got this incredible letter from NASA asking if I would want to be an experimenter on their first lunar and planetary missions. I had read science fiction since I was a kid so I just couldn’t refuse.
You are most famous perhaps for the invention of the Gaia Theory, in which you prove that the Earth is a self-regulating system. How did you come up with the name, Gaia?
It is an interesting story. I used to live in a village in Wiltchire and in that village there lived William Golding, the Nobel Prize-winning author. He was a friend and he was very interested in the work I was doing with NASA because although he was an author he had a degree in physics that he got from Oxford before the war. So I was walking up to the village post office with him once and he asked about what I was working on, and I told him about the theory and he said that if I was going to come up with a big theory like that, I needed a proper name for it. And so I asked what would he suggest and he said “Gaia”.
Did you accept the name immediately?
Well, in fact we kept walking for another twenty minutes and I thought he meant “gyre” as in the ocean currents, because they also self-regulate and he was a sailor himself, so you can see the confusion. And then suddenly we realized we were talking about different things. And he said “No! I mean the goddess of the Earth!”. I must confess I didn’t know that that was her name. But when somebody is as good an author as he was, you would be a fool not to accept the suggestion.
If Gaia is a goddess, how does humanity tie in with Gaia?
Well, we are part of it.
Would Gaia be better without humanity?
No I don’t think so. In fact, I am sure it wouldn’t. I think we are the most important animals to have emerged since the Pre-Cambrian. There are two species on earth that are truly important for life and for the existence of the system. The first ones were the photosynthesizers, which somehow devised an extremely efficient way of trapping sunlight and turning it into food and oxygen and all the other components that make up the living planet. The next one, I think, was us. Because what we have done is take the energy of the Sun and use it to harvest bits of information about the Earth and about the system. And of course that is exceedingly powerful.
Though there is a trend in society to say that humanity is evil…
There is, and the idea that we are harmful is largely green nonsense. The greens have taken up a lot of ideas for a sort of a fake religion and they keep on muttering about how wicked we are.
How does that correlate with what you have said in the past about the world being overpopulated?
Well, I maintain that it would be nice if we cut our numbers back to the number that Malthus had in mind, which is about one billion people. I think there is too many of us. But I might be wrong about that. I am just about to start on a fiction book which will have that in its theme.
So at 96 years old, you have now decided to start writing a science fiction book…
I like writing and this is a good place to do it [his cottage in the English southwest]. You might think that somebody of my age won’t have many years to live, but it doesn’t bother me. I wake up each morning feeling just the same as I always did, the same as I did when I was a student in Manchester. You know, there is something quite interesting I’ve noticed, you can call it Lovelock’s Law. I think the older you get, the less you worry about the future. Well, in a way, you are there already aren’t you? TMM