Master of science — and time
Tuesday, January 12, 2010, 08:54Comment on this story
IT WAS one of those journeys which proved Einstein's idea of time being relative.
You know the sort of trip. You're in a whirlwind of a hurry. You absolutely HAVE to be somewhere.
Your job/marriage/reason for breathing depends on it.
So that's when it happens. Time has a major lazy attack. It crawls on its hands and knees, with every moment unwinding so darn hesitantly.
Traffic lights sadistically slo-mo to red as you approach. Delivery lorries and buses, moving like hearses with the handbrake partly on, seem to yawn as they ease into your path.
In fact all the drivers in front of you suddenly become conscientious about all creatures great and small, stopping for every bumble bee which buzzes past their line of vision.
But despite this clear and present time-slip, the digits on your dashboard clock are hurtling forward — 1.51pm, 1.52pm, 1.53pm... How does it do that? How can time be superslow and warp-speed fast concurrently?
Such head-scratching conundrums are far beyond my grasp, but they are doubtless easily understood by the man I was about to meet.
James Lovelock is a master of all things science-related, and I was hoping he would also be tolerant of poor timekeepers, because I was 20 minutes late when I got to Dartington College.
I leaped from my car, not bothering to lock it, and ran through the grounds.
People were a blur as I sped by, but one person stood out.
A trim, white-haired man, accompanied by a slim, elegant lady.
It was James Lovelock with his wife, Sandy.
Between breathy gasps I blinked sweat from my eyes and introduced myself, apologising for my poor grasp of time.
James couldn't have been more understanding. His face lit up in a big smile and he joked that he had a sympathetic view of time, having experienced a fair amount of it at the esteemed age of 90.
It is difficult to believe he is in his 10th decade. He really doesn't look it, and he certainly doesn't sound it.
He is very passionate about the world, very eloquent, insightful and defiantly energetic.
When we'd found a quiet room in which to chat, he told me: "Time goes by so quickly, especially this decade. It goes by like such a bloody flash.
"But I fill my life quite nicely, and I'm quite fit. I suppose my health is down to good genes and walking. We do about five miles a day.
"We've walked the South West coast path in recent years.
"Exercise has never been important to me to the point of being fanatical, but Sandy and I feel we're missing something if we don't get a daily walk.
"We enjoy it. Devon's countryside is so beautiful. Neither of us could bear the thought of working out on an exercise bicycle."
James Lovelock is an amazing man — an independent scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist and 'futurist'.
He is a founder member of Schumacher College at Dartington, and is known internationally for proposing the Gaia hypothesis.
The name Gaia, Greek goddess of the Earth, was suggested by Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Golding, with whom James was good friends, and the concept demonstrates that the planet's biosphere has a regulatory effect on its environment and, subsequently, its life forms.
Gaia was ridiculed in the 60s and 70s, but scientists now hail it as one of the most important ideas of the past 50 years, with some pundits even comparing James Lovelock to Charles Darwin.
On the back of this, James is often the man journalists go to for a pessimistic quote about global warming, because his research suggests that within 50 years (or less) the human race will be struggling — really struggling.
Nation fighting nation for water and food.
He said: "It looks very much as if, the way things are going, we have damn-all time.
"But who knows? I mean, look at it now. It was warming up fast at the turn of the century but, since then, it's stayed more or less constant.
"In fact last year the temperature actually fell by half a degree. So a lot of people are saying, 'Where the hell's global warming now?'
"Well, you can see it from space. It's really happening, and that'll affect the rest of the planet in time.
"The way I look at it is, if you've got a glass of a cold drink with ice in it on a hot day, it'll stay cool as long as the ice is there. But the moment all that ice melts, whoomph — it heats up straight away.
"So while the Arctic is melting — the floating ice, that is — it won't heat up all that fast. But once that's gone, and they reckon it could be anything from five to 20 years, I think the temperature will run away. It'll soar.
"What's causing it to melt? Is it natural? Well, it doesn't matter what's causing global warming. It's happening. I think Al Gore's right. Some of the heating is caused by human activity.
"But I think the planet is a self-regulating entity and it's been trying to correct what we've been doing for some time, and if the planet could think it would realise there's no point in struggling any more, so it's relaxing to the comfortable state it's been in many times before.
"The simplest example is the melting of the floating ice. When it was all ice there, which was in 1983, at the end of the summer, which isn't all that long ago, it was reflecting 80 per cent of the sunlight that fell on it back to space.
"By the time that ice is gone it'll only be reflecting 20 per cent back to space, so that's an enormous increase in the amount of sun absorbed by the polar regions, where the sun's shining 24 hours a day of course.
"So that shows just one way in which the Earth is joining in on the act of global warming, and shows why, I don't think, there's much more we can do."
Despite this seemingly glum reading of the world's immediate future, James is resolutely optimistic and cheerful, and he is proud of his work at Schumacher College, which he helped to found in 1991 with notables such as South Devon author Satish Kumar.
The college, named after economist and author EF Schumacher, is an international centre offering learning for sustainable living.
James said: "I'm not based at Schumacher College now, but I go there about once a year. I've still got friends there. It's a wonderful place."
In addition to Schumacher College, James's career is wide and varied. In 1948 he received a PhD in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974, and he served as the president of the Marine Biological Association from 1986 to 1990. He has been a Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, since 1994, and received numerous prestigious prizes.
Within the United States he has conducted research at Yale, Harvard and Baylor College of Medicine. He became a CBE in 1990, and a Companion of Honour in 2003.
James is also a passionate inventor. Among his creations is the electron capture detector, which assisted discoveries about the persistence of CFCs and their role in ozone depletion.
The damage caused to the ozone layer by CFCs was later discovered by Frank Rowland and Mario Molina, who'd heard a lecture on the subject of James Lovelock's work, and embarked on research which resulted in the first link between CFCs and ozone depletion. They later shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
James has also worked for NASA. In early 1961, he was engaged by the Americans to develop sensitive instruments for the analysis of extraterrestrial atmospheres and planetary surfaces.
This included the Viking programme, which visited Mars in the late-1970s.
Having packed so much into his long life, is he ever planning to slow up?
He laughed at the idea. "I'm still working hard. I'm working as hard as ever, writing as much as ever. The hardest bit is not writing the books, it's publicising the books, getting to the airports, flying away.
"Books are far more of a product nowadays. That's an aspect of the modern world I don't like. On the whole, though, my publishers at Penguin have been wonderful. They let me off. They think, 'Poor old sod. It's a bit rough getting him to do all this.'
"If I can keep going, I'll keep going. The secret is having something to look forward to. I always feel life begins at each of your new decades, so what's next for me?"
What's next for 90-year-old James is a journey into space. He is booked on the inaugural flight of Virgin Galactic, a gift from Richard Branson, which is due to set off from New Mexico in the near future.
James said: "I'm definitely going, as soon as possible. I'm hoping it'll be some time this year, but it depends on many things. I'm really looking forward to it."
James's enthusiasm is not appreciated by his doctors, who have advised him the risk is too high, that the G-Forces could be too much for him.
Also, he did have a heart attack in 1971, having been a smoker for 34 years.
But he says his heart is as strong as a youngster's now, so he is determined to be on that rocket, come what may.
He laughs again. "Would I be scared? No. If it went wrong and I died, what a perfect way to go. So much better than dying slowly of some hateful disease. And I'd first get to see what I've always wanted to see — the Earth from above."
James Lovelock loves life. He has never counted the hours, but he's made every hour count. Unlike me, clearly, he is a master of time — and it will not weary him