Professor James Lovelock (1919–2022)
Regarded as one of the most influential scientists and engineers of the twentieth century, he is best known for the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests the earth is a self-regulating, single organism and as inventor of the electron capture detector. He published more than 200 scientific papers in his career, covering medicine, biology, instrument and atmospheric science, and geophysics, and his work was influential in fields including cryonics, climate change, and NASA planetary exploration.
Professor Lovelock joined the fellowship of then-Green College in 1994 during the tenure of the late Sir Crispin Tickell. He contributed to the Green College lecture series in 1997 on the theme of ‘The shape of things to come’. His flagship lecture was on ‘The life expectancy of life on earth.’ As Warden, Sir Crispin spearheaded the Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, leading work on climate change that subsequently moved first to the Department for Environmental Change, and then ultimately to the Oxford Martin School.
Professor Lovelock maintained active engagement with college until relatively recently. He was a regular visitor to college under Principal Sir David Watson (2010–2015). Memorably, he joined for dinner in the Radcliffe Observatory under Principal Professor Denise Lievesley (2015–2020) when she highlighted our responsibilities to the environment at the start of dinner. Professor Roland Rosner, Professor Lievesley’s partner and Radcliffe Common Room Member, represented the college at his 100th birthday lunch at Blenheim Palace three years ago.
Our thoughts are with Professor Lovelock’s family and friends at this time.
Read more about Professor Lovelock
‘His work formed the basis of much of climate science.’ Read more
Obituary in the Guardian
‘His research highlighted some of the issues that became the most intense environmental concerns of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, among them the insidious spread through the living world of industrial pollutants; the destruction of the ozone layer; and the potential menace of global heating. He supported nuclear power and defended the chemical industries – and his warnings took an increasingly apocalyptic note.’ Read more
Obituary in The Times
‘An idiosyncratic, independent thinker, Lovelock was inspired less by technical papers than by literature, philosophy and his own uncommon sense and sensitivity. His Gaia hypothesis – that the Earth is itself a living organism, proposed in the early 1970s – helped to restore what he called “the sacramental side of science”. In an age of reductionism, he looked for richer, more cohesive explanations.’ Read more
Obituary in the Telegraph
‘Although Lovelock became a hero to many in the environmental movement, the admiration was not reciprocated. He regarded the movement as a “potent force preventing environmental reforms”, because many of its claims about, for example, the dangers of nuclear power, were based on dubious scientific evidence.’ Read more
Obituary in the New York Times
‘Lovelock’s breadth of knowledge extended from astronomy to zoology. In his later years he became an eminent proponent of nuclear power as a means to help solve global climate change and a pessimist about humankind’s capacity to survive a rapidly warming planet.
‘But his global renown rested on three main contributions that he developed during a particularly abundant decade of scientific exploration and curiosity stretching from the late 1950s through the last half of the ’60s.’ Read more
Obituary in The Conversation
‘James Lovelock… described himself as an “independent scientist since 1964”, because of the income generated from his invention of the electron capture detector while studying for a PhD in 1957.
‘[He] did despair at humanity’s inability to look after the environment and much of his writing reflected this, particularly his book The Revenge of Gaia in 2006. But at the age of 99, he published Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (2019), an optimistic view which envisaged humanity creating artificially intelligent life forms that would, unlike us, understand the importance of other living things in maintaining a habitable planet.’ Read more