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Open seven days a week, 10.00-18.00. Entry to the Museum is free.

Unlocking Lovelock – Scientist, Inventor, Maverick

Inside the exhibition

James Lovelock is famous for developing the controversial Gaia hypothesis, but has also made major contributions to medicine, environmental science, atmospheric chemistry and the exploration of space.

In this exhibition, we explore Lovelock's personal archive, which spans 70 years of his extraordinary life, tracing his unconventional career path and the development of his ideas.

Through his letters, documents, photographs and drawings, some of which are featured below, we get a unique insight into his creative mind and charismatic personality.

Exhibition highlights

Early drafts of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1970s

Hand written notes on Gaia theory in ring bound notebook
Early drafts of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1970s. Object no: 2012-118/3 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

This draft of Lovelock’s first book was written at his holiday home in Adrigole, Ireland. The book was published in 1979, 11 years after his first scientific paper on Gaia. The informal style of the book made it popular and more widely read than his scientific papers. Over 200,000 copies have been sold since it was published. The name Gaia was first suggested by Lovelock’s neighbour, novelist William Golding.

Read an excerpt from the draft

“As Urey has taught us the atmosphere and oceans of the Earth were not part of the original wrappings. Any primeval atmosphere would have been blown away during the early stages of the sun’s settling down.  The Earth was for a while bare like the moon is now but later there was an escape of volatile material. The pressure of the Earth’s own mass and stored energy of its hugerly radioactive contents together heated the Earth until the gases and the water boiled off from the interior to form the air and seas.

We do not know how long it took to produce this secondary atmosphere nor do we have evidence of its composition. “

Home-made apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars

Glass jar with wires, pipes and dials attached to lid
Home-made apparatus to test if a detector would work on Mars, c. 1960s. Object no. 2012-125 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

Lovelock created this fantastic-looking apparatus while working on NASA’s Viking mission to Mars. He built it in his home laboratory, using an ordinary kitchen Kilner jar and a home-made lid. The detector was sealed inside the jar and air was removed via the valve on the left to replicate Martian atmospheric pressure.

Home-made electron capture detector

Solid cylinder with rods at either end
Home-made electron capture detector, c. 1960. Object no.1977-258 pt 1 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

The electron capture detector is so sensitive that it can detect gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) at a concentration of one part per trillion. This is equivalent to detecting one drop of ink diluted in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools. Lovelock took about six years to perfect this invention. The ECD has been used all over the world and has been crucial in raising awareness of the extent of global air pollution.

Bowerchalke haze diagram

Map and two photos with drawn lines
Bowerchalke haze diagram, 1960s. Object no. 2012-118/10 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

In the 1960s Lovelock became curious about increasing levels of haze obscuring the views around his home in Bowerchalke, Wiltshire. To discover if this was caused by man-made pollution he enlisted his family to take daily measurements of haze density and wind direction. They also measured concentrations of the man-made chlorofluorocarbon gas FC11 using Lovelock’s electron capture detector. The diagram and photos show how visibility changed depending on wind direction.

‘Some thoughts on the year 2000’

Typed document with introduction to a report written in 1960s about the year 2000
‘Some thoughts on the year 2000’, late 1960s. Object no. 2012-118/16 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

Lovelock was asked by the energy company Shell to write this essay predicting what the world would be like in the year 2000. He forecast that growing concerns about pollution and population growth would lead to industrial companies developing products that mitigate environmental damage. He also makes predictions about TVs, bingo halls, suburbs and communications.

Read an excerpt from the essay

“If I am right in my prediction that by 2000 a large proportion of the total energy turnover is going towards the avoidance of ecological disaster; then we can be sure that Shell will be in the business of counter-measures for profit. This might be its major activity.”

Watchmaker's lathe

Two wooden tool boxes and metal watchmaker's lathe
Watchmaker’s lathe. Object no. 2012-122 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

Lovelock built many of his inventions including his famous electron capture detector using this high-precision watchmaker’s lathe. The lathe is so precise it can carve a slice from a human hair. The machine shows the wear and tear from its many years of service. Lovelock learned how to use tools like this lathe while working at the National Institute for Medical Research.

The Goblin in the Gasworks

First and last page of a hand written story with illustrations
The Goblin in the Gasworks. Object no. 2012-118/1,7 © Science Museum, James Lovelock

Lovelock was inspired to write this story for his school magazine after visiting Beckton Gasworks in London. He was very impressed by the plant, which was one of the biggest in Europe at the time. As in many of Lovelock’s later stories, the main character saves the day through the application of science.