Volcanic ash and scientific identity – James Lovelock and Gaia

As well as being an author, I am a scientist. Not the conventional sort of scientist that works for years in a lab in a specialist area. I am an independent researcher. We are a rare breed, because being an independent researcher doesn’t make you popular. In fact, making the decision not to work in a scientific institution and not having your work centrally funded makes academics’ lips curl in derision.

However, my reasons for this are simple. If I worked in the NHS or in a University department my creativity and research would be stifled by funding priority and a culture of hierarchy. The quality of my work would be no different – just the subject of it. Many academics stared silently at me when I got my doctorate and didn’t apply for a lecturer job. What would I do? Hadn’t I ‘failed’? How could I possibly work outside the institution? On the contrary. I have had my work published. I have written a doctoral thesis. I have written a book. I have published journal articles. I have a blog. I have a wealth of social networking sources where my work is regularly distributed to those who are interested, in every corner of the world.

I knew what I was doing, because I had modelled my intent and ethics on someone who came before me. This week the programme Beautiful Minds on BBC4 covered the life of James Lovelock, an independent scientist who innovated, amongst other things, Gaia Theory. This programme was timely as the day after a volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing chemicals into the stratosphere and cooling a severely overheated planet. The huge relevance of symbiotic homeostasis hit home, the scale of it previously only vaguely predicted. If you are not familiar with Gaia Theory, I urge you now to read Lovelock’s work, he has published many books and papers which, until recently were rubbished as New Age ranting, but are now accepted as a viable theory for climate change.

Yet Lovelock’s career has not followed the stereotypical route through university. His path was hampered by dyslexia and single minded people who could not think outside the box and assumed that their opinion was ‘truth’. All discriminatory practice resorts eventually to personal name calling as a defense and Lovelock has been called all the names under the sun. How has he managed to become credible having lived his career outside the institutionalised power constructions?

The key to his success and the success of other people who chose difference as a life plan is determination and persistence. The weaving of their science into the fabric of their lives allows it to become a living, breathing, everyday life project. Also, directing the curious mind on a trajectory that is, perhaps, slightly away from the course of current evidence building empirical science. This cannot possibly be don’t in institutions as the targets and outputs require KPI’s and performance statistics. So the value of independent scientists is clear. In statistical terms, they are the outliers that are often ignored in order to obtain the normal distribution curve or the correlation.

In the BBC programme Lovelock was amused by the reaction to what he regarded as his lived experience. When his identity as an independent scientist was held up as a badge of invalidity of his work, he remained undeterred. For the people who were ridiculing his theory and his identity were failing to think outside their own environment and consequently reinforcing their own unremarkable career paths in institutionalised science.

Some people are suited to be cogs in a wheel, others emerge as leaders in the field through their own efforts. Lovelock has consolidated his scientific identity in a remarkable direction and one which has thinking people looking around them, noticing events like the Icelandic volcano and recognising the symbiotic resonance of ‘Gaia’. I could only dream of scientific success on this scale, but I continue to follow Lovelock’s identity example of independence and was thrilled to see him given a full hour of media time.