James Lovelock CH CBE FRS is leading an extraordinary life. On July 26, 2019 he reached the age of 100, and Novacene is his latest book. Lovelock was born into an impoverished family and, after night school at Birkbeck College, he won a place at Manchester University to study chemistry. He transferred to medical sciences and, for most of his life, he has supported himself and his family on his earnings from inventions.
In the early 1960s, he was invited to become a member of the NASA team for the Surveyor mission scheduled for a soft lunar landing, and then he was asked to design a tiny device for the Viking programme which landed on Mars. It was to measure the atmosphere and possibility of life on Mars and he is proud that his invention worked perfectly and showed that any conceivable life form on Mars is impossible.
Lovelock is the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, that planet Earth is a self-regulating system, and it was his electron capture detector which first measured the presence of CFCs in our atmosphere.
Novacene was published earlier this year and centres on Lovelock’s thoughts for the future of our planet. He has a number of ideas which are not popular but are well expounded in this book.
We unthinkingly regard the human species as the pinnacle of development; Lovelock thinks that cyborgs (machines with artificial intelligence) will supersede us as life on Earth. Whilst he agrees that the solution of carbon issue in the atmosphere is crucial to the survival of life on Earth, he regards the sustainable development argument, where wind turbines power modern economies, as meaningless drivel. The only possible future for the creation of enough energy for current demand is the use of nuclear fission and, if we can master the technology, nuclear fusion. There are vast bureaucracies devoted to the solution of the problem of nuclear waste, of the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, but nothing comparable to deal with the truly malign waste, carbon dioxide.
As a species, we are under threat from many directions: asteroid strikes, massive volcanoes, global warming, the increase of heat generated by the sun. One of the charming insights that Lovelock uses, when writing of the overheating of Earth, is that its very name is a misnomer. Viewed from space, it became obvious that the planet should be called Ocean, since it is 70% covered by the sea.
We are taught to think in step-by-step logical process, but Lovelock maintains that the successes in his life are the product of his lateral, intuitive thinking, the type of thought process which our education system discourages. He quotes Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
But there are irritants running through Novacene. The title of the book is a development of the geological terms used to measure the history of planet Earth. Geological terms have boundaries which are apparent in rock formations in the earth’s crust. Yet he uses the term Anthropocene to denote the age we have lived through, and Novacene for the age we are entering.
He asserts that the Anthropocene began with the invention of the steam engine in 1712, because Newcomen converted stored solar energy into useful work and that the Novacene began with the conversion of solar energy into information. All right, but they are not geological terms as he uses them.
Other authors have made a case for the beginning of the Anthropocene at around 1600, with the Columbian Exchange which left plentiful geological markers.
As one of the thinkers who regards life on this planet as unique, Lovelock asserts that there can be nothing comparable anywhere else in the universe. If the universe is indeed infinite, then there are infinite possibilities that some form of life will exist elsewhere. When we cannot even explore the limits of our own galaxy, how can we be sure of absence of life forms in the trillions of other galaxies in the cosmos?
Lovelock states that he can afford to hold divergent views only because he does not rely on any outside funding for his research, and it is a joy to read a book by an internationally famous thinker who welcomes disagreement and argument. So much more interesting than the sterile straitjacket of consensus that science has become.
Novacene is a short book of 130 pages, which can easily be read in one sitting. It fizzes with ideas, some of them quite strange. The book is immensely thought-provoking, and even if it is the last of Lovelock’s books, it is well worth the effort to read it.
What a life this man is leading, as The Sunday Times refers to him: “The greatest scientific thinker of our time.”