Top positive review
18 of 18 people found this helpful
An unusually frank, warm and compassionate science memoir
on 22 January 2001
Whilst talking to a colleague a few days ago, I mentioned that I had just read the autobiography of James Lovelock. He looked blank. "James Lovelock", I said, "the originator of the Gaia hypothesis? The idea that the processes of life maintain the earth in homeostatic balance?" He shook his head.
My colleague is a microbiologist and I was at first surprised that he had never heard of Lovelock or Gaia. After a little thought, I realised that the topic is probably not taught in many university microbiology courses. Lovelock is, after all, widely regarded as a maverick independent scientist, whose ideas have been variously vilified by evolutionary biologists (notably Richard Dawkins) and adopted as religion by the New Age environmental movement. However, Lovelock has always been something of a personal hero to me, so I began the story of his life with great anticipation.
I wasn't disappointed. Over the course of twelve chapters, Lovelock takes us through his early life and education and what he calls his "scientific apprenticeship", largely spent working for the Medical Research Council over some twenty years. He then describes his first steps towards an independent scientific career as an inventor and consultant, facilitated largely by his invention of the electron capture device (ECD), an instrument capable of detecting almost unimaginably tiny quantities of molecules in air and water samples. This leads to a spirited discussion of the "Ozone war" in the early 1970s, in which Lovelock became embroiled as a consultant for companies manufacturing CFCs. The Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock's best known idea, is discussed quite briefly in Chapter 9, where Lovelock tells us how the ideacame to him whilst working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and of the fight to gain credibility for Gaia with the scientific establishment. The latter part of the book is the most personal, where Lovelock describes the day to day practice of independent science, his struggles with serious medical problems in later life and his new-found happiness with his second wife, whom he met at the age of almost 70.
On the surface, Lovelock appears as a bundle of contradictions. A self-professed recluse who lives in an isolated corner of rural England, yet widely travelled with a large circle of friends and admirers. A doyen of New Age environmentalists, yet intensely critical of many environmental organisations. A meticulous, methodical and practical scientist, yet shunned and ridiculed by the science establishment. However, Lovelock comes across as a man of great integrity and gentle courage, who sees no such contradictions in himself. What sets this science autobiography apart is its very personal, frank and warm style. It is clearly not the work of a ghost writer-Lovelock's writing hops about with little regard for the precise timeframe of events (as he admits cheerfully towards the end of the book). There are moments of great humour, as when he describes his experiences with the culture and beaurocracy of the United States, and many honest, open and moving moments, such as his accounts of major surgery undergone in the 1980s or the decline and death of his first wife through multiple sclerosis.
In the preface to the book, Lovelock writes "Some who read this book might think it old fashioned ,and if they do, I ask them to note that I was born in 1919, when English society was still conditioned by the code of the gentleman, a culture which valued good manners, playing by the rules, admiring the good loser and above all taking full responsibility for mistakes." He needn't have worried. He has lead a more extraordinary life than most of us can ever hope for and his personal account of it is a joy to read from start to finish.