James Lovelock, Scientist Behind Gaia Theory, Dies at 103

(LONDON, England) — James Lovelock, the British environmental scientist whose influential Gaia theory sees the Earth as a living organism gravely imperiled by human activity, has died on his 103rd birthday.

Lovelock’s family said Wednesday that he died the previous evening at his home in southwest England “surrounded by his family.” The family said his health had deteriorated after a bad fall but that until six months ago Lovelock “was still able to walk along the coast near his home in Dorset and take part in interviews.”

Lovelock, who was born in 1919, was raised in London. She studied medicine, chemistry and biophysics in England and the United States.

He worked in London’s National Institute for Medical Research between the 1940s and the 1950s. One of his experiments, which examined the impact of temperature on living organisms, involved freezing hamsters then thawing them. These animals survived.

Lovelock worked during the 1960s on NASA’s moon and Mars programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He spent most of his life as an independent scientist, not affiliated with large academic institutions.

Lovelock’s contributions to environmental science included developing a highly sensitive electron capture detector to measure ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and pollutants in air, soil and water.

Lovelock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis developed the Gaia hypothesis. They first presented it in the 1970s. According to the scientists, human activity was causing dangerous disruptions in the system.

Lovelock was a powerful communicator who used speeches, books and interviews to inform about the dangers of climate change, such as desertification and agricultural destruction, and how they would affect mass migrations.

“The biosphere and I are both in the last 1% or our lives,” Lovelock told The Guardian newspaper in 2020.

Initially dismissed by many scientists, the Gaia theory became influential as concern about humanity’s impact on the planet grew, not least because of its power as a metaphor. Gaia, the Greek goddess of Earth, is Gaia.

Lovelock didn’t mind being outsider. Many environmentalists were outraged when Lovelock supported nuclear energy. He claimed that it was the only solution to global warming.

“Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media,” he wrote in 2004. “These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources.”

Roger Highfield, science director at Britain’s Science Museum, said Lovelock “was a nonconformist 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,” Highfield said, citing Lovelock’s “extraordinary range of research, from freezing hamsters to detecting life on Mars.”

Lovelock’s wife Sally, and his children Christine, Jane and Andrew are still with him.

“To the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and conceiver of the Gaia theory,” they said in a statement. “To us, he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humor and a passion for nature.”

Family members stated that there would be an intimate funeral followed by a public ceremony of memorialization at a later date.

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