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Scientists' Nightstand: James Lovelock

Independent scientist and inventor James Lovelock is best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that Earth's biosphere and environment make up a complex, evolving system that can be thought of as a living organism. His most recent book is The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Basic Books, 2009).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?James LovelockClick to Enlarge Image

I am a 90-year-old scientist and consequently old-fashioned. As did scientists two or more centuries ago, I work in my own laboratory, make my own expeditions and almost never seek or take funds. It would help to be wealthy, but instead I pay for my research in the way an artist does, by selling advice or small pieces of hardware. Such a way of life has left me free to exercise my curiosity and work on topics, such as the Gaia theory and the abundance of CFCs and other gases in the atmosphere, at a time when such research was unpopular. For the past 32 years I have worked from my home laboratory in rural West Devon. The nearest neighbor is one kilometer distant. To sustain an academic connection I have been since 1991 an honorary visiting Fellow of Green College, Oxford University, and since 1974 a Fellow of the Royal Society.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

For work, I am currently reading A Climate Modelling Primer, by Ann Henderson-Sellers and Kendal McGuffie (Wiley, 2005). I chose this book because I am trying to discover how seriously we are in love with our models of the climate. I suspect that scientists are losing hands-on familiarity with the natural world, and I wonder how far out of touch we are. I know and respect the authors and use their book as a guide. I have just read for pleasure No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 2005). I chose it when browsing in a bookshop, because it was fiction set in West Texas, an area I grew to know and like when I lived for three years in Houston. I found it a deeply moving and scary book that left me wishing for a sequel.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read fiction in bed at night, research papers and books in the morning before or just after breakfast, and general nonfiction, including newspapers and journals, during breaks.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

My favorite fiction writer is Graham Greene, my favorite nonfiction writer is Mary Midgley, and my favorite poet is Philip Larkin. Graham Greene writes beautifully, and his characters and plots are as intriguing now as when they were created. Mary Midgley is a philosopher whose thoughts and ideas inspire me and whose writing is clear and rewarding to read. And Philip Larkin is the poet who moves me most.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

First, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). It was the book that made me see the flaws of Marxism when I was in the intensely left-wing student world in the 1940s. But it was much more than a political tract; it was also a wonderful story. My next choice is Fundamental Algorithms, the first volume in Donald Knuth's Art of Computer Programming (Addison-Wesley, 1968). He confirmed what I had suspected—namely, that composing programs for a digital computer is just like composing poetry or music. Like all good art, a good program is an exercise in the purging of superfluity. My third choice is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State University Press, 1980). I surely hope that  Ignatius Reilly was not hurt in the New Orleans flood caused by Hurricane Katrina.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I read J. B. S. Haldane's essay "On Being the Right Size" (1926). This essay, more than any other, set the course of my life as a scientist. Haldane was a hands-on polymath who showed me how to hypothesise and then test by experiment—even, if necessary, on myself.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), Tolstoy's War and Peace (1869) and the Adobe Photoshop CS4 manual.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

I would recommend to young readers Steven Strogatz’s book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (2003). It captures the essence of some of the deepest of modern science in a way that is familiar and comfortable. Like the best of science books, it captures the sense of wonder without which I do not see how one can be a scientist.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

For nonscientists I will be cheeky and recommend my first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford University Press, 1979). This book was composed on the side of a mountain in Ireland, and I had in mind an intelligent woman who was not a scientist. It worked better than I could have imagined with one woman who read it—we met, and she is now my beloved wife.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I do not have a formal discipline, but as an earth system scientist I would strongly recommend to both earth and life scientists Donald Riggs's book Control Theory and Physiological Feedback Mechanisms (Williams and Wilkins, 1970). Understanding the earth system, or Gaia, is closely similar to understanding the physiology of an animal like a human. Riggs's book brings the fundamentals of control theory to human physiology and can readily be mapped onto the application of control theory to earth system science.

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