The influential scientist talks about his Earth-as-superorganism hypothesis and predicts a new era for humanity, unfettered by the constraints of our bodies
EARTH 24 July 2019
By Gaia Vince
27 July 2022: James Lovelock has died on his birthday, at the age of 103. In 2019 he spoke to New Scientist about a new era for humanity.
ONE OF THE most influential scientists of our time, James Lovelock worked for the British government during the second world war and later for NASA on the Mars Viking mission. It was then that he was inspired to develop the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that Earth is a massively interconnected, self-regulating system. His new book, Novacene: The coming age of hyperintelligence, argues that the Anthropocene era of human influence over the planet is coming to an end and that an age of superintelligent beings is about to begin.
Thanks for the coffee and, er, the saucer of ice…
That’s to make it drinkable. A chunk of ice cools the coffee 80 times more effectively than the equivalent volume of water at 0 degrees.
Well, my dad was a hunter-gatherer and that’s where I learned my ecology. He used to take me for walks and knew the nesting places of all the birds, and the names and homes of all the animals, plants and insects. He gave me training in the environment.
A British hunter-gatherer? You aren’t that old! But did that training make you an environmentalist?
No! That immediately makes me think of a city-based academic type of person who has strong views on how things ought to be. I am a much more laid-back person who just takes the world as it comes. I get an intense feeling of happiness from the environment.
You have come under fire for some of your attitudes, like your pro-nuclear energy views.
Has it occurred to you that most of the large money that circulates in this country comes from the fossil fuel industries? And they probably spend huge sums of money on anti-nuclear propaganda.
So you think it is a contrived argument?
Yes, the anti-nuclear argument is very much so. It’s so safe, it’s almost ridiculous. And it’s improving. The latest form of nuclear energy being worked on uses thorium, rather than uranium, and it’s almost impossible to get it to go into a runaway chain reaction or to do anything nasty.
How did a poor south London boy become one of the most influential scientists of our time?
An aunt married into the Leakey family and they gave me elocution lessons to get rid of my working class accent. I couldn’t afford to go to university so I got an apprenticeship and my boss sponsored my degree in the evenings at Birkbeck [College, London].
The war broke out when you were 20. Did you fight?
No. This country called up all of its scientists and I was involved with all manner of strange scientific things that I still can’t talk about. It was very interesting but there were crazy ideas. They set fire to the sea off Studland [in Dorset, UK], as Churchill thought this would frighten the Germans away. They poured petrol onto the ocean in huge quantities when it was desperately short for fighter planes and the like.
After the war, you did some pretty far-out stuff at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, London.
My main line of work was freezing whole animals and bringing them back to life to test resuscitation techniques. I discovered that if you wanted to find an animal that survives for a long time in the frozen state, you need one with a certain composition of fatty acids in its blood, and hamsters fit this. But we needed to check this to prove it. Two floors from where I worked, Archer Martin had just invented the gas chromatograph, which could analyse the fatty acids in the animal’s fat. So I went to see him with my sample, but he said he’d need 100 times more – it would mean a mass slaughter of hamsters. I was crestfallen. Then he said, “or you could invent a more sensitive detector for us”. Within two weeks, I had built the detector and that put the gas chromatograph on the market and made a lot of money for the institute.
“During the war I was involved with all manner of strange things that I still can’t talk about”
And it took you to California…
One morning in 1961, there was a letter on my desk from the director of Space Flight Operations at NASA asking me to come and help them design equipment to send to Mars and the moon, to analyse soil and see if there’s any life there. They had a very small rocket, Pioneer 1, that didn’t use a lot of fuel, and I’d built by far the most sensitive chemical detector in the world. It was only a few inches in size and used very little power: a few watts could send a signal from Mars to Earth.
What was it like at NASA in those early days?
It was marvellous. But I was disappointed by the biologists: they didn’t have any understanding of what they should be looking for. I got in trouble with the boss man for making the biologists lose their morale. He then asked: “What would you do if you wanted to detect life on Mars?” Without thinking, I said I would look for an entropy reduction. Well, that made him spurt with laughter, but he gave me two days to come up with a practical experiment to find life on Mars or I was out.
A reduction in entropy means an increase in complexity; it implies that life is creating order. But how could you measure it?
In bed at night, it suddenly came to me: all you have to do is analyse the atmosphere of Mars. If it has got gases in it that react with one another, then it is at a low entropy.
Because otherwise, they would have reached an equilibrium, which implies raised entropy?
Exactly. He got very excited, as we had a real practical experiment to send, which became part of the Viking mission. So I can look up at the night sky and see Mars knowing I’ve got two bits of stuff on it that are responsible for showing that there isn’t any life on Mars.
And this led to your hypothesis of Earth as a self-regulating living system?
Yes, because the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere is far too high – it’s a huge entropy reduction and it doesn’t make sense. But if you look at it as a system that produces organic matter and oxygen in the atmosphere, making a combustible mixture, and that energy then feeds back into the living system…
…You can view it as a giant superorganism. How did you come up with the theory’s name?
My friend and neighbour was the author William Golding, who had studied physics at Oxford and was very interested in space. He said, “if you’re going to come up with a big theory about planets, you better give it a good name. I suggest you call it Gaia”.
What a truly fabulous name…
Well, my reaction was puzzlement. I thought he meant “gyre”, because we’d been talking about whorls. He meant the Greek goddess, and it stuck. The biologists hated it and so did the Americans, but it was well-received by most of the European geophysicists.
Was it harder because you were an independent scientist?
NASA advised me to become a contractor, as I’d get more money that way. But without an affiliation, I couldn’t get papers published. The first paper on the entropy reduction that I did for NASA, I sent to Nature. I had published dozens of papers from Mill Hill in Nature before without any trouble, but this one they sent back straight away. “We don’t publish papers from home addresses. They mostly come from cranks,” they said. A friend, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, suggested I become a visiting professor there. So I did, and then they accepted it. That was the first paper from Britain on the exploration of the other planets.
In the four decades since you published the Gaia hypothesis, the idea of interconnected earth systems has become mainstream. There is growing concern about how humans are affecting these planetary systems, pushing us into the Anthropocene, the age of humans.
I think we’re forging ahead into the post-Anthropocene, into the Novacene. I think the chemical-physical type of humanity has had its time. We’ve mucked about with the planet and we’re moving towards a systems type of thing, [a future species] running on cybernetics. The great thing is that if you run your systems on electronics or optical devices, they’re up to 10,000 times faster than what we’ve got at the moment, and this opens up enormous possibilities.
So will we and the rest of the natural world survive alongside these cyborgs?
Well, the biological won’t necessarily vanish completely, but it will be of less fundamental importance. People automatically assume that therefore humans will be finished. That’s nonsense. We are much faster, more advanced, than plants and it doesn’t mean plants have all vanished – we rather enjoy having them around. I always imagine one of these new cyborg-type people standing on a five-bar gate and looking out at the humans…
And when does your Novacene start?
I’m not sure, it may have already started.
You have 11 great-grandchildren who are presumably going to be around in our warmer world. Do you think they will survive it?
Assuming that the Novacene system comes in, its capacity for thinking will be 10,000 times, at least, faster than ours. It could be as much as a million times faster. I don’t have doubts about survival. Look what we’ve done by increasing our intelligence. Perhaps I’m slightly religious, but I think the whole of the live part of the universe, which is mostly us and things [on Earth], is working through its existence. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
So you’re a fatalist?
If you like.
You have seen a century of Earth’s changes, humanity’s changes – what about you? Have you changed as a person?
You’d have to ask Sandy. She’s still with me. It was an extraordinary love story. I met her at a meeting at Blenheim [Palace], but we hardly spoke to each other. And on the last day, I had just returned from the rather splendid loos and saw Sandy in a group of women. She turned around and looked at me, and I looked at her, and we just walked straight into each other’s arms and never said a word. And that was it.
Oh my goodness. Well, now I’m starting to understand your fatalism!
All along, I’ve just happily trundled on, doing the experiments and getting the answers. And they were mostly exactly what I wanted. And it’s been a good life. Not a rich one, financially, but a good one.