Paris (AFP) Sept 17, 2009
Researchers from a broad swathe of disciplines are strangely ill at ease when asked about fellow scientist James Lovelock, whose improbable career has just entered its seventh decade.
Chemists, biologists, climatologists and physicists are all quick to reach for superlatives: "brilliant", "ahead of his time", a "renaissance scientist" in an age of ultra-specialisation.
This is the man, after all, who in the 1950s invented the machine used to detect the hole in the ozone layer.
And it was he bluntly told NASA that Mars is bereft of life long before the US space agency's probes confirmed as much.
Then there is Lovelock's famous Gaia Theory, that Earth is a single, self-regulating super-organism.
At a stroke, it helped redefine how science perceives the relationship between our inanimate planet and the life it hosts -- and, say supporters, it may one day leverage a paradigm shift in scientific thinking.
Konrad Steffen, Director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colorado, hails Lovelock as "a forerunner, giving notice that we were headed for major change."
"The data, however, was not easily accepted," he noted.
But even as the scientific community sings Lovelock's praises, one waits for the other shoe to drop.
When it comes to climate change -- the issue that has consumed Lovelock's interest more than any other over the last decade -- the old man has got it wrong, they say.
At least they hope he is wrong.
Five years ago, Lovelock's "The Revenge of Gaia" issued a terrifying warning: if humankind didn't radically curtail greenhouse-gas emissions, there would, quite literally, be hell to pay.
His new book out this year, "The Vanishing Face of Gaia," says it has now become bleakly apparent that we blew our chance.
"We have left it far, far too late to save the planet as we know it," Lovelock told AFP.
So what advice would he give to world leaders gathering next week in New York for a climate summit, less than three months ahead of a make-or-break UN conference in Copenhagen?
"Be prepared for change, and adapt to the change that is coming. And get ready for a great, great loss of life during the process," he said.
Lovelock's grim conviction that we cannot prevent a global warming apocalypse in which billions of people will perish is rooted not in what we will fail to do in the future, but what we have already done in the past.
For even if we stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tomorrow, he says, the carbon dioxide (CO2) already there has triggered natural events -- the shrinking Arctic ice cap, the decay of the Greenland ice sheet, methane release from permafrost -- that will continue to drive global warming on their own.
"He says our current tendency to interpret climate change as a smooth, relatively controllable process is misleading, and that it is much more likely to be a sharp adjustment and an uncontrollable process," said Andrew Watson, a top climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, eastern England.
"That is the heart of his message."
For the moment, Lovelock's is a minority view.
"I have the highest respect for James Lovelock -- he is a great mind and a great scientist, no question," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose report serves as the scientific benchmark for the UN climate talks.
"But so far the evidence that we have passed the point when things become irreversible is still very small and highly improbable. I think if we take action now, we will be able to stave off major disaster," he told AFP.
Lovelock grew up in south London between the wars, and started out as a photographic chemist.
As his brilliance emerged, he was quickly drafted by Britain's National Institute for Medical Research, where he worked for 20 years.
In the early 1960s, NASA lured him to California to investigate possible life on Mars, which led him to his "eureka moment" -- the insight of Earth as a living, integrated system.
In some ways, Lovelock makes it easy for his mainstream peers to politely ignore his doomsday predictions.
Pixie-like and unfailingly polite, the 91-year-old has been a self-described "independent scientist" for more than four decades, but the price for freedom has been a lack of institutional backing.
His vocal scorn for academic boundaries has not earned him many natural allies either.
"The members of each discipline are quite proud of the fact that they know nothing about the other disciplines," he said with a mischievous grin.
Environmentalists cherish his concept of Earth as single organism but are aghast at his support of nuclear power and his dismissal of renewable energy as a money-making scam that "doesn't do a damn thing as far as reducing climate change."
"I don't agree with his position on renewables at all," said Watson, who is writing a book on Lovelock's contribution to science.
"But I do think that he is doing a good job in showing up the possible reality behind the rather carefully worded documents of the climate scientists."
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