He Knew He was Right is subtitled ‘the irrepressible life of James Lovelock’. I discovered James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia over 20 years ago, and although I acquired several of his books, never actually got around to reading them. I did gain familiarity with his theories, though. A shame, then, that it took his death, on his 103rd birthday, 26th July, to spur me to get on with one of them; the biography by James Gribbin & Mary Gribbin. It’s a lot more fun than Stephen Hawking!

James Lovelock biography

He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia

by James Gribbin and Mary Gribbin

Jim Lovelock is an iconic figure in British science, a prophet whose prophecies are coming true. This is his definitive authorised biography. Lovelock is best known as the ‘father’ of Gaia theory, which is now established as the most useful way of understanding the dramatic changes happening to the environment of the Earth. But few people know about his early work as a chemist and inventor – work which included inventing the detectors used to search for life on Mars, and blowing the whistle on the depletion of ozone layer.

In his personal life, he was a Quaker and conscientious objector in World War Two (later changing his mind in view of the evils of Nazism), supported his family for a time by selling his own blood, and gave up a salary and security to become an independent scientist based in an English village – from which all his best known work emerged. As he approaches his 90th birthday, looking forward to going into space, this book truly reveals an independent, original and inspiring life. [first published April 1, 2009]

My Review

This is a very readable account of a fascinating life: James Lovelock, known as the father of the Gaia theory. Originally this came in for a lot of stick, with hard scientists poo-pooing it as hippy trash, misunderstanding the use of a Goddess’s name. But in introducing the concept of whole earth systems thinking, what better name to use than the earth goddess herself?

What lies behind the theory is a great deal of hard science, and particularly a study of feedback loops. This is where one thing has an effect on another – sometimes good, sometimes back. You’ve heard feedback at concerts when the guitar gets too close to the speaker. And strangely, it was because of his early work on instrumentation that he got these ideas in the first place.

The authors work very hard to make the phases of Lovelock’s life, and importantly, his career, fit seamlessly. I suspect it involved feedback. Describing how the boy went from ‘not going to college’ to a useful role in a prestigious science lab involved contacts, and the spin off developed from there. Lovelock always seemed to be involved in the right sort of projects.

Or maybe it was because of this strange combination of experiments. Lovelock was a technician for the research into the common cold at Porton Down. He had a knack for making machines that could test and measure things we now take for granted. He gradually acquired both the knowledge and the technology to recognise the way the earth worked with feedback loops. And that was the start of ecosystem science (although some like to distance it from Gaia theory, personally I don’t).

career change

If I had been born twenty years later, I would definitely have wanted a career in Lovelock’s science. As it was, I picked it up in the nineties and maybe it prompted me to change. This book explains the way Lovelock’s thinking (and that of his contacts and colleagues) came to change the way we manage our thinking on earth processes, especially climate change.

And unsurprisingly, he turns out to be a really nice chap. I wish I’d met him, although I did view his available lectures on video.

A really good read, covering many changes in scientific thinking through the twentieth century. A must for history lovers, as well as scientists, technologists and climate change researchers.

Book Review | He Knew He Was Right: James Lovelock by James Gribbin + Mary Gribbin 'A really good read… for history lovers, and all disciplines of scientists' #5Stars #biography #gaia Share on X

Book Review | He Knew He Was Right: James Lovelock
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One thought on “Book Review | He Knew He Was Right: James Lovelock

  • 3 October, 2022 at 8:22 pm

    Sounds like the kind of thing I would like. History and science together! And a bit more insight into the way the world works?

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