A new exhibition on James Lovelock has just opened at the Science Museum, offering a glance into the museum’s ongoing analysis of his archive.
Lovelock, born in 1919, is an interesting if controversial character who enrages and delights both the scientific establishment and the environmental movement. He is open in his criticism of both groups too. In an interview he gave the Guardian as part of the exhibition launch he argued environmentalism has become a religion and “religions don’t worry too much about facts.” As part of the PR for the exhibition he also spoke to Nature, offering several dismissals of the scientific establishment and a slightly bitchy line regarding “the tendency of some geologists to keep their heads in the sediments.”
Lovelock is best known for the Gaia hypothesis, a vision of the Earth as a holistic self-regulating system co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. But he has worked in many fields, refusing to be bound by disciplinary boundaries and contributing to medicine, environmental science, atmospheric chemistry and the exploration of space. He is also an inventor and instrument maker as well as prolific writer.
Lovelock is interesting not just in terms of his scientific outputs, but how he goes about doing science. Eschewing the institutionalisation and large-scale team work of modern so-called ‘Big’ science, he is resolutely independent. He also deviates from standard forms of scientific dissemination, often communicating directly to the public via science books. His refusal to play by the rules of modern science shows up the existence of such rules which are, often, a bit ridiculous. This has won him many fans, but it has also made him the odd enemy too.
Reading the various accolades of Lovelock surrounding the opening of this exhibition, he’s often depicted as a wise old man, a ‘character’ and true independent thinker who took on the establishment. But there is also something slightly anti-social about him too. The exhibition explains that one of the reasons Lovelock made his own instruments was so he had greater confidence in their accuracy. This is perhaps fair enough. But seems to reflect a lack of trust in other people. He is also famously pessimistic of our ability to politically deal with climate change. Lovelock told Nature that “as far as I’m concerned, I don’t have any peer review.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, but it seems to imply he doesn’t really have “peers” that might try to fairly review him. Perhaps this is true. As Philip Moriarty recently argued, the specialised nature of modern science mean that often researchers are asked to review work which they don’t really have much detailed knowledge of. Still, there is something arrogant about the way he puts it.
In telling this story of Lovelock, the Science Museum offers us some clever curating. You can enter the exhibition from one of two sides; either tucked behind the games of the Energy Futures gallery, or via the front stairwell and glass lifts. This might prove a challenge for a biographical narrative, but the museum tops and tails the display with items of Lovelock’s youth, with well placed double-faced signage throughout meaning that – although occasionally it feels like cleverly constructed pop-up book – there is a sense of coherent story through his training, work on Gaia and various adventures elsewhere.
Museums can be bad spaces for the exploration of science. Science is about ideas, but how do you put a theory in a glass case? Science is also constructed from gradual interactions between scientists and the natural world. It is slow, full of calculations and correspondence. It’s not always exactly eye-catching. And science changes and is continually provisional. It can feel too slippery for something as physically solid as an exhibition. But the Lovelock display captures something of the dynamic texture of doing science. It even manages to display peer review (no mean feat, especially considering Lovelock seems to think he’s beyond such things). Or at least it shows Nature’s rejection letter to Lynn Margulis, complete with a very mid-1980s typeset, and notes from a couple of respected earth scientists who were sent chapters of Lovelock’s second Gaia book in the late 1980s.
There are references to the role of science in diplomacy and scientific advice in politics, with an invitation and seating plan for a dinner held at 10 Downing Street in 1989 in honour of the President and First Lady of Bangladesh. We are told that, after talking with him at dinner, Thatcher invited Lovelock to participate in a seminar on climate change. We are also shown letters dated from 1997 and 2000 from the former Prime Minister, respectively offering congratulations on an award and thanking him for a copy of his new book. It’s not clear if Thatcher and Lovelock bonded scientifically or politically – or a mix of the two – but there seems to be some sense of mutual respect between them anyway.
The Science Museum exhibition also captures some of the cultural offshoots of Lovelock’s work, with the score of an oratorio based on extracts of his books. There was no Captain Planet though, which disappointed me probably more than I should admit to, and perhaps reflects the problem of an exhibition led by a scientist’s own collection and view of their work, rather than exploring the more accidental ways it might have been taken by society at large. There’s also no mention of Lovelock’s relationship with Shell, a company he has a long history of working with and supporting. As he wrote in Homage to Gaia: “My experiences with Shell left me firmly with the impression that they are neither stupid nor villains. On the contrary I know of no other human agency that plans as far ahead or considers the environment more closely.” Perhaps the curators thought it wasn’t relevant. But seeing as Shell is a “Premium Sponsor” of the exhibition it is hard not to wonder.
As enjoyable as much of the exhibition is, however, I worry that in studying a single man, and especially this single man, the museum is in danger of celebrating the cult of the individual somewhat. That Lovelock pushes back against the tendency towards big, networked science is part of what makes him interesting, but it is also unusual. Allied to this I’d have liked to see a lot more critique of Lovelock. In places the exhibition – and certainly the PR for it – borders on hagiography. There is a strong sense of individualism – not just independent thought – which seems to drive Lovelock. This is not necessarily a bad thing, or good one, but could at least be contextualised, in terms of cultural and scientific history of the time.
There is something hollow and depressing in this vision of science as a lone enterprise, just as there is something slightly hollow and depressing about Lovelock’s approach to environmentalism. I don’t think I like it, and I worry that the Science Museum seems so keen to blithely celebrate it.