DWT Communications Officer, Sally Welbourn, met with Professor Lovelock to talk about the difference between science and invention, how it felt to be the first living scientist to have an exhibition in The Science Museum, and where he stands on renewable energy.
For James, The Science Museum is one of the first places his interest in science and invention began. “I remember first going to The Science Museum in London when I was six years old. At that time my mother and father lived in Brixton in north London and ran an art shop. On Sunday afternoons they would go to the V&A museum and the National Gallery, and I was bored to tears! One day my father suggested I go across the street to the science museum, where I’d find lots of things to interest me there. Of course, he was right. In the 1920’s it was all about steam engines, and I was fascinated.” To celebrate James’ 95th birthday, a year-long exhibition Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick was created in the place his passion began. “It was a big surprise and I’m very proud to have been a subject for an exhibition in the Science Museum. They did a great job because it would have been tempting to focus on the science, but they brought out all the human elements too– the school reports and my doodles. It’s great to see kids visiting and thinking ‘oh he got a bad school report!’”
Of course, James did not stop studying after school. “During WW2 my family were quite poor and there was no way I could go to University but I did know if I was going to practice science, I’d need a degree. I started evening classes whilst working with a consultant for the photographic industry, where I learnt the most advanced aspects of physics and chemistry. I couldn’t have done better there, as despite being told I had to work, not learn, I learnt a lot! After two years, I’d done so well at evening classes at Birkbeck College, I got a scholarship to Manchester University.”
So, what did James want to be – a scientist or an inventor? “Whilst I’m most noted for being a scientist, I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that I’m an inventor. What inventors do, is invent something intuitively, and then it’s sometimes years before a scientist explains how and why it works. My most famous invention is the ECD – a little device that found all the pesticides in the environment and helped to measure CFC’s in the atmosphere. It took me about a week to make, but took me seven years before I was able to show how it worked.”
It’s all because of this device that James was invited by NASA to join in with their first lunar and planetary experiments. “Receiving a letter from NASA in 1961 was like receiving a love letter. It really was very exciting. I was enormously surprised – I’d read science fiction since I’d been a kid, and to be invited by NASA to participate in the exploration of Mars was just unbelievable.”
Whilst biologists debated a way to find life on Mars, James suggested that they should look at the whole planet and see whether that reveals the presence of life, rather than looking for ants or bacteria in the desert. This was to form the basis of his famous and controversial ‘Gaia Theory’ – the theory that living organisms and their surroundings have evolved together as a single planet sized living system.
Whilst being interested in how the planet worked on a larger scale, James enjoyed the natural world closer to home. “My father used to take me for long walks when we lived in South London, we would go about 20 miles South to Leith Hill. During our walks he would teach me all sorts of things, like how to tickle trout in the stream, and he knew the ecology of all the animals and wild flowers on the heath.”
At the age of 80 James completed the 630 mile South West coast path walk in just 13 weeks. “It felt like a wonderful achievement, and great to see the South West coastline so un-touched, unlike Scotland, where giant wind turbines are dominating the landscape.”
The preservation of Dorset is very important to James, who spent many childhood holiday’s here. “Dorset is an important part of my life I would love to see it declared as a national park to avoid further development.”
His affiliation with Dorset Wildlife Trust has been long-standing, since the 1960s, when James joined as a life-member. “My support for DWT is very strong. I have nothing but admiration for the Trust. I actually joined when I lived in Wiltshire, which is also lovely, but Dorset is definitely the place – after all, it has the sea!”