Homage To Gaia by James Lovelock (book review).

March 27, 2014 | By | Reply More

I only read autobiographies from time to time, mostly because it’s amongst the review books we get rather than something I’m normally drawn to. James Lovelock’s autobiography ‘Homage To Gaia’ is outside of my genre but not outside of my subject interest matter, science.


Born in 1919, his account of his early life, upbringing and education and it’s clear that he’s a geek as much as us. Lovelock openly admits to being disruptive at school, mostly because it bored him but was determined to persevere because he wanted to become a scientist and worked against all obstacles to achieve that goal. The fact that he has, although doesn’t describe it as such calling it a retentive memory, a near photographic memory also explains how he can recall his past in so much detail. His flavour of the time period leading up to World War Two London would be of interest to any historian. His work on viral infections has also led to most of us using paper tissues than handkerchiefs to stopping the spread of infections because infections aren’t caused by air spread but by touch.

Reading the details of Lovelock’s experiments can make him seem like a one scientist tour de force although he often points out the work of the other scientists along the way. I learnt a lot about welded boats from his trip out to the Arctic to examine carbon monoxide from aircraft revving their engines in the hold. His experiences with working in America is very enlightening about how their commerce and negotiation even applies to research pay and how it contrasts to us in the UK where we just settle for a wage.

His work on and the creation of gas chromatography and electron capture device are fundamental scientific tools today. The later was fundamental with discovering the problems with CFCs when no one was convinced that there was something wrong with aerosols. This work later moved on to the problems with the ozone layer.

Lovelock’s contribution to the 1954 BBC play ‘The Critical Point’ ensured the lab looked correct and supplying the sound effects inspired the Beeb’s creation of the Radiophonic Workshop and you shouldn’t need to be told where they contributed most to. When you consider even up to today that physics labs in films and TV series still have chemicals on the shelves, it’s a shame that scientific advisors aren’t used to keep things accurate. Lovelock’s point that a lot of machinery in a standard physics lab is wasted or rarely used would make for an odd fiction lab with little in it as well but I suspect there is often some sort of expectation needed for the viewer to ‘look scientific’.

He also worked on some early NASA projects, noting the problems of the lack of communication across the sciences to get things done efficiently, especially with the minimalising transmission of data. His examination of the Shell company, whom he worked as a consultant for thirty years, and their concerns for ecology at the time should be read by all of you, especially where it concerns the benefits of putting iron materials, like drilling platforms, into the sea as so much marine life benefits from it. The means of tracking people chemically for the security services is also illuminating. Something that he explains about invention is that natural creators have a tendency not to patent their inventions because they are always moving onto the next thing and not notice anything gone.

To tell the truth, I haven’t paid as much attention to the Gaia hypothesis as I should have. Thinking about it now, I think I accepted it from the start thinking it perfectly logical and moved on. The ecology of the world fills in any niche in the world and how it balances itself out to restore a homeostasis until the next event changes things. If anything, the adaptability of life on Earth also means that short of a major catastrophe, life will go on. Before you sigh with relief, this doesn’t mean mankind is safe and that if you want to protect your own niche, there is a need to protect our own environment as well as the rest of the world.

Following Lovelock discussing how he and others had to prove this to other scientists illustrated the sort of dogma that exists for not only change but even checking theories from established determined scientists. I was a scientist long enough to know that it makes sense to check something if only to prove it’s wrong than dismiss anything out of hand. It’s by doing the latter that so much current mythology abounds because it hasn’t been proved inaccurate. Interestingly, writer William Golding suggested calling it Gaia and I can’t help but wonder if its mythological associations were the reasons for other scientists’ dismissiveness of it than perhaps calling it the whole world theory.

For me, these were the highlights of this book. Much of the end of the book covered Lovelock’s medical problems and travels abroad where he gave lectures and winning awards. The world has caught up with him and I suspect that the Gaia legacy will ensure his legendary status. This book is certainly a learning curve of getting into a modern day scientist’s head, seeing his work with problems and solutions.

GF Willmetts

March 2014

(pub: Souvenir Press. 428 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £18.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-28564-255-1)

check out website: www.souvenir press.co.uk

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Category: Books, Science

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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