Prominent environmental scientist James Lovelock, famous for his proposal that the Earth behaves as a living being, died in his home in Dorset, England, on his 103rd birthday (July 26) following complications from a fall, according to a statement posted on Twitter on behalf of his family.
“I am devastated by Jim’s death. He was a source of inspiration to me for my entire career.” Richard Betts, a climate researcher at the University of Exeter, tells BBC News. “Jim’s influence is widespread, profound and long-lasting.”
Lovelock was born in 1919, about 30 miles north of London. While he avidly read science and history books growing up, he was not a high-achieving student, according to The New York Times. Nonetheless, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and doctorates in medicine and biophysics from different institutions in the UK, according to Lovelock’s website.
Lovelock’s scientific contributions were many. In the 1940s and 1950s, he studied the effects of temperature on living cells at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, reports NPR. According to his website, his research showed that the mechanisms of cellular damage during freezing depend on salt concentrations. He also participated in experiments that successfully froze and thawed living hamsters.
In 1956, Lovelock invented an electron capture detector that paved the way for gas chromatography technology. According to the Times, his detector helped scientists understand how toxic chemicals contaminate the environment, that human-made pollution causes smog, and that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once used in aerosol cans and air conditioners were accumulating in the atmosphere; however, he initially concluded that CFCs posed no harm, which he later admitted was “a gratuitous blunder,” the outlet reports.
But it was in the late 1960s, the Times reports, that Lovelock presented his most famous idea: that the Earth self-regulates its climate and temperature much like how a living organism regulates its metabolism, and that all living things participate in this global homeostasis. He named this idea the Gaia hypothesis after the Greek goddess of the Earth. Though controversial at first, it slowly gained acceptance and has become influential in the study of the causes and effects of climate change, according to the Times.
“He had a great mind and a will to be independent,” renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben tells the Times. “As global warming emerged as the greatest issue of our time, the Gaia theory helped us understand that small changes could shift a system as large as the Earth’s atmosphere.”
In 2004, Lovelock stirred controversy again when he proclaimed that nuclear energy was essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reports the Times. Lovelock also authored numerous books, including The Revenge of Gaia and A Rough Ride to the Future, which both cover aspects of climate change. His most recent was 2019’s Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, which posits that a new era of life marked by the rise of artificially intelligent beings has already begun.
Lovelock received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the Amsterdam Prize for the Environment from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts in 1990 and the Blue Planet Prize—considered by many as equivalent to a Nobel Prize for environmental work—from the Asahi Glass Foundation in 1997 for pioneering trace-element detection technology and for formulating his Gaia Hypothesis.
Lovelock is survived by his wife, Sandra, and their four children, Christine, Jane, Andrew, and John. “To the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet, and conceiver of the Gaia Theory,” the family’s statement reads. “To us, he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humour, and a passion for nature.”
Correction (July 31): This article has been updated to correct the birth year of Lovelock. The Scientist regrets the error.