Lovelock a Lone Voice for the Lone Scientist

lovelockJames Lovelock’s new book A Rough Ride to the Future will be published on April 3rd by Allen Lane. Shortly thereafter, on April 9th, an exhibition on his life and works will open at the Science Museum in London. Entitled Unlocking Lovelock:Scientist, Inventor, Maverick it will draw attention to one of the themes the 95-year-old ponders in his latest work. Would a lone creator, such as himself, be able to operate in the current scientific landscape? He sincerely hopes it will inspire and encourage the next generation to consider the path he has taken and the freedom it affords.

Lovelock, who invented the Gaia Theory, has spent much of his lifetime working as a lone unit. In fact, of his 70 years in science, he has spent 56 of them alone. He does not argue against the necessity of large teams, rather that there must be space for both, the teams and the loners, to create optimum conditions for discovery.

As the exhibition will display, James Lovelock, even as a schoolboy, was in his reports “a reluctant pupil” but one who always had a huge passion for the natural world. His reluctance to conform and his obsessions were there from the beginning.

A 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal by Jonah Lehrer alerted Lovelock’s antennae to the prophesied demise of the individual mind in science. Lehrer wrote, that if any of the greats of the past were to come back to life today, be it Einstein, Galileo or Newton, they would find no place for themselves. Science is now such a vast, and greatly expensive, enterprise, that it is only in the costly laboratories propped up by governments or corporate finance that scientists can function.

Intrinsically disagreeing with this argument, Lovelock’s initial reaction was that a great brain can perform at any point in history and that “singular and breathtaking” ideas would always find a way to break through. However, when he stopped to consider it further, he realised that times were indeed very different from his own early days as an individual inventor back in the early sixties.  Bureaucracy existed, but in no way to the extent it does now, and any hurdles it posed were minor and easily overcome.  Now, he says, these obstacles are “formidable.”

Regulations and restrictions on health and safety, not to mention political correctness would see a modern-day Faraday, thinks Lovelock, up to his ears in paperwork all day without the time to think. It is a complaint that is heard in many professional fields from teaching to medicine. The form filling has taken over from the original purpose of the work.

In addition, what Lovelock calls the “monstrous village” of the internet, has exacerbated a climate where “nags, scolds” and, worst of all, “officious fools” are all too ready with their opinions to knock others down. Anyone with an outstanding mind, Lovelock fears, may be treated like a jutting nail, and hammered back into line. Individuality is at threat from the global community.

Lovelock’s modus operandi since 1964 has been to work from home in a laboratory of his own devising. He did not ever choose to wear a white coat, the symbol of the scientist, he wore old clothes that he could throw away. Buying expensive equipment always seemed like a waste of money to him as he knew too well how long it took to get a patent on a new piece of apparatus and turn it into a saleable implement. “New” instruments were probably ten years out of date. Things he needed but could not make himself he would barter for time on or help with from a friend. Until the middle of the twentieth century, he believes, nearly all scientists worked in this way. Noticing a difference, making observations, patiently waiting to accumulate evidence.

It was the advent of the Second World War, says Lovelock, that brought about a radical change when governments began to think of scientists as armies, where a larger regiment would achieve more. The reverse, he suspects, is true. Gather together a million intelligent people and put them in an interdisciplinary conference, and they will not match the lone genius of one Einstein, he writes in the new book.

Peer review is another feature of modern-day science that is biased against a sole operator receiving any funding. This is another reason that they are now as “rare as ectoplasm.”  It is almost impossible to get papers published in respected journals and without peer-reviewed papers, grant agencies will not offer support. This “automatic rejection” process in favor of big established teams means that the outsiders and the loners are destined for extinction.

Lovelock describes himself as ‘autarkic” and as someone who has never needed to work in a large think-tank to inspire his ideas, rather they have arisen natural, through wondering and through ingenuity. During the war, in 1943, he recalls a knock on his door at 4pm one afternoon. It was his then boss, who needed something to measure severity of heat radiation burns for a meeting at the War Office the next morning. The product was created in four hours. In today’s world, Lovelock imagines, such a request would take months of teamwork in a civil service laboratory.

There may be nostalgia in Lovelock’s observations, he laments, for example, the way the more glamorous and dangerous experiments are now mostly simulated on computers and his style of “hands-on” science is disappearing. As a way of breaking the “disciplinary integuments” that stifle science though, he still recommends the solitary path.

The maverick professor has succeeded by himself. Whether sole scientists can continue to survive as he did is less likely. At least he is envisioning a future need for scientists of all ilks which is reassuring in light of some of his more frightening predictions that through “accelerated evolution” time is running out fast for all of the human race. It seems, though the road ahead is rough, it is still a prospect that intelligence can guide the way to a reconciled relationship with Gaia.

By Kate Henderson


Culture 24
The Independent
Oxford Literary Festival

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