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Lovelock, James (Ephraim)

hypothesis environment gaia life

(1919–) British environmental scientist: devised the Gaia hypothesis.

After studying chemistry and medicine in England, Lovelock held medical research positions in the UK as well as posts in chemistry, medicine and space science in the USA. After 1964 he conducted an independent scientific career. Lovelock’s most significant contributions have been in the field of environmental science.

In 1957 Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, an extremely sensitive device that revolutionized the study of environmental chemistry by enabling man-made chemicals to be detected in the environment in very low concentrations. The device led to the discovery that pesticide residues had become widely distributed in nature, and also to the discovery of significant concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide (N2O) in the atmosphere, both discoveries leading to increased concern about mankind’s pollution of the environment.

In the early 1970s Lovelock proposed the theory for which he is best known, the Gaia hypothesis. Named after the Greek Earth goddess, it proposes that the Earth can be viewed as a single living system in which complex feedback mechanisms act to regulate the environment and maintain optimal conditions for life. According to the Gaia hypothesis, therefore, life on Earth is bountiful not by chance but because the Earth’s feedback mechanisms have evolved a complex and interwoven pattern of life that not only makes optimal use of the environment but also transforms the environment into a state that best supports life.

While the Gaia hypothesis is, through its global and all-embracing nature, difficult to ‘prove’, it is a way of viewing the Earth that has proved fruitful. One result was Lovelock’s own prediction of oceanic dimethyl sulphide emissions in order to balance the global sulphur cycle, which has since been observationally confirmed, as have his proposals on aspects of the carbon cycle in nature.

Lovelock’s inventions and theories have significantly contributed to the advancement of the environmental sciences and have increased awareness of the global effects of man’s polluting activities. Early scepticism about the Gaia hypothesis has diminished as its value has been appreciated.

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