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Dorset Lives: The man who set the sea on fire

James Lovelock is well known as the creator of the Gaia theory but, as Catherine Bolado discovers, there’s much more to him

James Lovelock in his Coombe Mill laboratory, 1980s

James Lovelock in his Coombe Mill laboratory, 1980s

The gulls are reeling and swooping as the waves crash along the West Dorset beach. Spray flies as rain looms large across the grey and puckered sky. It is exactly the sort of ruggedly beautiful place you would expect to find a man who has devoted most of his life to the study of the natural world. Inventor, scientist, futurist and author, James Lovelock, 97, has been given many labels in his time. His best-known works are Gaia Theory and creating the Electron Capture Device which first found CFC gases in the atmosphere.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust patron has lived and worked around the South for most of his life and holds Dorset ‘very close’ to his heart. He still walks the coast and hills around his West Dorset home almost every day with his wife, Sandy. His day starts at 5.00 to get in several hours work before their 10.00 walk.
Currently on the to-do list is editing the 97,000 words he has just written as an adventure novel, which will probably keep him busy for ‘quite a few months’. ‘It’s an adventure story set on a ship going from Portland to somewhere south of the Falklands,’ he explains. The plot does feature James as one of the characters in a ‘partly autobiographical’ role. He explains: ‘I wrote an autobiography some time back, but it’s only current up to the year 2000. So there’s about seventeen more years to bung in and I can do it by being one of the characters on the ship.’
While finishing the book is the most immediate project, James has no plans about what might come next. He says: ‘I believe very much in serendipity. You set out to do one thing and then surprise, surprise – something comes out of the blue and you want to go off and do that.’
Fortunate happenstance appears to have been a mark of his career. After university in Manchester, he spent quite a bit of time in Dorset during World War 2, working on ‘peculiar devices’. Testing had been going on which involved setting fire to the seas at Studland, as it was hoped that this could be used as a deterrent against any planned Nazi invasion by boat. ‘The whole thing was mad, mad beyond belief,’ remembers James. ‘One of our jobs was to demonstrate that it was mad. If a boat had been driven through the flames they would have been brushed aside and anyone in the vessel would have just had to bend down and take cover.’

James and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970 (Irish Examiner)

James and his daughter Christine collecting air samples in Adrigole, South-West Ireland, 1970 (Irish Examiner)

James would return again to Dorset later in his career, this time to manage a Ministry of Defence site at Winfrith.
It was his Electron Capture Detector invention in the 1950s, which found the presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, that landed him ‘a terrific chance’. So impressed with his invention were NASA that James received a letter from the director of space flight operations when the agency was only three years old, asking if he would join them on their lunar and planetary expeditions. Because his device was so sensitive, simple and straightforward to use, they wanted it for the early space fights. The hardware he designed is still on Mars, as part of the Viking landings of the 1970s. James says it was a wonderful experience working with the rocket scientists and craftsmen to create the ‘exquisite little spacecraft. It was lovely.’
It was while working at NASA and looking for life on other planets that his work on Gaia Theory started. Named after the Greek goddess, the theory runs that all living organisms and their non-living surroundings on earth work together to form a self-regulating system. This system creates the conditions for life. The ideas have influenced fields of study including climate change and energy, but James says it is an ‘unpopular topic with universities. It’s right, but they won’t teach it.’ With a laugh, he says that people will have to accept it, ‘probably when I’m dead’.
James is not a fan of climate prediction, stating that climate models are only as good as the data that goes into them. Instead he is interested in observing the sea temperatures off the Dorset coast and the effect the water has on keeping the UK’s temperature stable.

James and his wife Sandy in Abbotsbury. Earlier this year they were at Simpsons on the Strand where James collected the title of Oldie Scientist of the Year at the Oldie awards.

James and his wife Sandy in Abbotsbury. Earlier this year they were at Simpsons on the Strand where James collected the title of Oldie Scientist of the Year at the Oldie awards.

He says that we still know ‘almost nothing’ about the ocean and yet people still make climate predictions. ‘All the heat is stored down there. The ocean covers around 70 percent of the world, most of it is about 4km deep and the bottom part is about four degrees. If something happens that stirs it up, we won’t have global warming, we’ll have an ice age. That’s why I’m not into climate prediction.’
Warm, funny and engaging, James says the main feature of his life has been happiness, and laughter frequently punctuates the conversation – especially when asked what he would like his epitaph to be: ‘No thank you. That’s somewhere in the future. It’s not my concern now!’
Businessman Richard Branson has invited him and Professor Stephen Hawking to take a free trip on the Virgin Galactic when it launches – a prospect James is very enthusiastic about: ‘I’d love to see the earth from space.’ The deal is still evidently on as the Virgin team sent him a cracker with the words ‘future astronaut’ emblazoned on for Christmas.
So is there a secret to happiness? ‘Not really. It’s partly luck. I think everyone has luck, it’s the character and ability to take your luck when it comes and not reject it or hesitate. When that letter came from NASA for me, when I was 40, if I’d said, “I wonder if it’s right, should I go?” I’d have missed out enormously. You have to do it.’

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