Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Renegade Science: John Lovelock

Photo from Greenpeace via BLDG BLOG

The following is excerpted from what I thought was a rather fascinating Rolling Stone profile of of controversial environmental scientist James Lovelock, who argues that climate change is now irreversible:

Lovelock's cottage in the woods is a world away from South London, where he grew up with coal soot in his lungs, coughing and pale and working-class. His mother was an early feminist; his father grew up so desperately hungry that he spent six months in prison when he was fourteen for poaching a rabbit from a local squire’s estate. Shortly after Lovelock was born, his parents passed him off to his grandmother to raise. "They were too poor and too busy to raise a child," he explains. In school, he was a lousy student, mildly dyslexic, more interested in pranks than homework. But he loved books, especially the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

To escape the grime of urban life, Lovelock's father often took him on long walks in the countryside, where he caught trout by hand from the streams and gorged on blueberries. The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative effect on him. "It's where I first saw the face of Gaia," he says now.

By the time Lovelock hit puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics. But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became a conscientious objector. In his written statement, he explained why he refused to fight: "War is evil."

Lovelock took a job at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where one of his first assignments was to develop new ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how viruses are transmitted -- and shagging nurses in first-aid stations while Nazi bombs fell overhead. "It was a hard, desperate time," he says. "But it was exciting! It's terribly ironic, but war does make one feel alive."

...Lovelock's colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock, as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere? If life were present, he reasoned, the organisms would be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere (such as oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life on Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were different, the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to detect. Sure enough, when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an analysis of Mars, they discovered that the atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium -- suggesting that there had been no life on the planet.

But if life creates the atmosphere, Lovelock reasoned, it must also, in some sense, be regulating it. He knew, for example, that the sun is now about twenty-five percent hotter than when life began. What was modulating the surface temperature of the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded. When the Earth heats up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise, warming the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as superorganism was born.

The idea was not entirely new: Leonardo da Vinci believed pretty much the same thing in the sixteenth century. But Lovelock was the first to assemble all the existing thinking into a new vision of the planet. He soon quit NASA and moved back to England, where his neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, suggested that he name his theory after Gaia, to capture the popular imagination. When established scientific journals refused to touch his ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. "The Gaia hypothesis," he wrote, "is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here." Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the "depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling driverless and purposeless around an inner circle of the sun."

Hippies loved it. Darwinists didn't. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion." In their view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection, then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets. How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined purpose. In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very close to God...

1 comment:

trumanwater said...

hey gary,

it's interesting to read a "legitimate" scientist assert that the earth is a living being.

we know at least one part of the universe (ourselves) is alive and capable of thinking about itself. it seems sort of stupid to deny this capacity to other parts of it.

i find that richard dawkins guy highly annoying. he seems to allow a childhood aversion towards religion to interfere with his "objective" faith in pure dawrinian science, forgetting that darwin was just some dude, trying to figure stuff out, like himself. his book "the selfish gene" is really boring and depressing but a lot of intelligent people love it.

i look forward to some golden age of science that is willing to exercise some Keats-ian negative capability, get over its fear of religion and magic, and start answering the really interesting questions.

looks like this john lovelock guy's on the right track.