Professor James Lovelock with his gas chromatographer and gas flowmeter (Credit: Science Museum)

Intuition as important as rationality says inventor

Society has made a grave mistake in valuing rational scientific process over intuitive invention, according to Professor James Lovelock.

The renowned environmentalist and inventor, best known for formulating the Gaia hypothesis – the idea that Earth is a self-regulating system – was speaking at the launch of ‘Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick’ a free exhibition at the Science Museum opening to the public tomorrow that tells the story of his career.

As an independent scientist Lovelock worked for the majority of his career out of a barn-turned-laboratory in the south-west of England and he credits his success to the freedom he enjoyed to combine the intuition and common sense of an inventor with the academic rigour of professional scientists.

“I think we’re all of us to some extent inventors, rude mechanicals that is, and to some extent scientists, arguers and thinkers rationally,” said the 94-year-old. “The great mistake society has made is to rate rational thinking as the high level stuff and intuitive invention as the low level and actually almost the reverse is true.”

The exhibition will feature highlights from an archive of objects, images, manuscripts, letters and patent material acquired by the Science Museum in 2012 that tell the story of Lovelock’s work in fields as diverse as medicine, environmental science, atmospheric chemistry and space exploration.

Visitors will be able to see images of the scientist’s home laboratory where he conducted numerous scientific experiments and see scientific notebooks, charts and data, manuscripts of books, articles and lectures, patent material, photographs and examples of the scientist’s own rough scribblings.

“My first introduction to invention and science was here and it was a great way to start a life,” said Lovelock. “I got an immense amount from wandering around the Science Museum as a child in those early days all those years ago and I think I learned more here than I ever did at school.”


 Prominent in the exhibition is the electron capture detector – one of Lovelock’s most important inventions – a device capable of detecting tiny concentrations of environmentally harmful compounds in the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 1967 he used it to measure the supposedly clean air blowing off the Atlantic onto the west coast of Ireland and found that it contained CFCs, now known to cause ozone depletion.

Visitors can also glimpse the watchmaker’s lathe that Lovelock used to build many of his inventions and the home-made gas chromatography equipment that journeyed to the Antarctic and back, which proved crucial to scientists’ current understanding of global atmospheric pollution.

Lovelock added: “I am delighted that the Science Museum has chosen to display this collection and I hope that it will show the next generation how it is possible to do scientific research as a lone inventor and scientist. I attribute the science I have done to the inspiration I received from visits to the museum from the age of 7 onwards.”

The launch of the exhibition comes just five days after the release of Lovelock’s latest book in which he introduces the concept of ‘accelerated evolution’ – a process bringing about planetary change roughly a million times faster than human evolution – which he says began with the innovation of the steam engine and has been driven by human invention ever since.

Rather than trying to attribute blame for this change and fight against the process, Lovelock says we should instead try to adapt and carry out a sustainable retreat so that we can survive as a species and contribute to the next phase of Gaia’s evolution, potentially by transitioning to a symbiosis with electronic life.

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