Fascinated by chemistry ever since his childhood in interwar Brixton, James forged a scientific career unlike any other.
James Lovelock is an independent scientist whose long research career has crossed disciplinary boundaries with ease. Originally trained as an analytical chemist, he has since worked in bacteriology, medical science, atmospheric physics, environmental science and ecology. Today he is most famous for his work on detecting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, which would lead to the discovery of the ozone hole, and for the Gaia hypothesis of the biosphere.
He was born in Letchworth Garden City in 1919, and for the first five years of his life he was looked after by his grandparents as his parents had moved to Brixton, in South London. Both of his parents were firmly working class and had little or no formal education: his mother had left school at 13 to work in a factory while his father had never been to school at all and was illiterate for almost all his life. Despite their own backgrounds, both of his parents encouraged an appetite for learning in Lovelock. His mother frequently took him to the local library, where he was drawn to the science fiction books of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and in particular to Wade’s Organic Chemistry, to which he became devoted. His father was a former poacher and had an excellent knowledge of the natural landscape and ecology which he shared with Lovelock on trips to the countryside.
“Chemistry was my love; I was always intrigued by it”
Lovelock continued his study of science at secondary school, where he had a close circle of very bright friends who encouraged each other to learn. He recalls one of his friends (aged 14) coming back from the summer holiday offering to teach him the quantum physics he had studied over the break. Lovelock did well at school and wanted to continue to study at university, but his family did not have enough money to support him.
“”My parents were much too poor for me to go to university, even with a bursary”
Additionally, his parents were now retired and needed financial support, so Lovelock took a job as an analyst at the photography firm Murray, Ball, and Spencer’s. It was a good job, it paid well, and the firm was at the cutting-edge of analytical chemistry at the time.
Another benefit was that the students were asked to attend evening classes in chemistry at nearby Birkbeck College, which would eventually lead to a degree. However, with the closure of Birkbeck due to the outbreak of war Lovelock moved to the University of Manchester, where he studied for his degree full-time.
After graduation, Lovelock was recruited to join the wartime research at the National Institute in London, where he thrived on the interdisciplinary work being performed at the time. In the first few years he was there he worked on bacterial sampling, aerial disinfectants (for which he received a PhD in 1948), heat-proof materials, and reanimating frozen animals. The varied, hands-on working suited him perfectly:
“Solving ad-hoc problems was just my cup of tea”
After the war had finished, Lovelock stayed on at the National Institute where he conducted independent research into chemical detectors. It was while working there that he made a discovery which would make his name: the electron-capture detector. This was a machine that could detect minute quantities of certain molecules in a gas. It worked by ionising the sample using β-radiation, and any molecules in the sample which are capable of capturing electrons reduce the current to a detector. In this way, halogenated molecules could be detected at parts per trillion concentrations.
Lovelock was also responsible for one of the first major applications of the detector. Intrigued by the haze that developed over his home in Wiltshire whenever the wind blew from over Europe, he wondered if it was caused by an industrial pollutant rather than natural causes. His suspicions fell on CFCs, a common refrigerant and propellant in spray cans, which was widely used in household products.
He set up his detector and measured the levels of CFCs in the atmosphere with and without the haze, and found that CFC levels in the air rose sharply wherever the haze was present. Working completely independently, Lovelock embarked on several voyages on the research ship Shackleton, measuring the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere as he went. This was the first documented evidence of CFCs in the atmosphere, and inspired the research which led to the discovery of the ozone hole and the banning of CFCs in 1980.
After his work on CFCs, Lovelock began to work more and more on environmental and atmospheric science, and he became interested in the effect of life on atmospheres while working with NASA on an experiment to find life on Mars. This set in motion a chain of thought which eventually led to him forming the Gaia hypothesis – that life on Earth is able to regulate the environment in which it lives. This theory spread widely, and even reached Margaret Thatcher during her time as Prime Minister. She recommended it to her cabinet and sought advice from Lovelock on many scientific and environmental matters during her period in office.
Now 95, Lovelock is still an active scientist, working from his home on the Dorset coast. His most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future, was published in 2014, and he was honoured with an exhibition dedicated to him at the Science Museum, London – the first ever for a living scientist.
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Image © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Published August 2014