Oral history of British science

Lovelock, James (part 5 of 13). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Climate Change Science

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    Interviewee’s home, Cornwall

  • Interviewees

    Lovelock, James, 1919 - (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 5: Story of inventing an instrument to track cattle movements for Frank Raymond, Grassland Research Unit, Stratford Upon Avon, while employed at Common Cold Research Unit [CCRU], Harvard Hospital, Salisbury [1946-1951]. [04:04] Description of changes to English agricultural landscape during and after WW2. Comments on overpopulation in Britain. Discussion of JL’s sense of own involvement in agricultural change, through oximeter work. [06:27] Story of moving from CCRU back to NIMR, 1951. Mentions walking with Sir Christopher Andrews of CCRU. [07:57] Story of being asked by Charles Harrington [CH] to contribute to new work at NIMR on the freezing and reanimation of organisms/organic material with glycerol. [09:58] Description of biologist Audrey Smith [AS], NIMR. Story of AS displaying artificial vaginae; being thanked by CH for maintaining good relations with AS. [13:22] Comments on practice of reanimating frozen hamsters with heated spoon. [14:42] Mentions self understanding as ‘nerdish’. Story of making wireless receiver as a child in relation to story of making diathermy apparatus [DA] at home Westbury Road, Finchley. Comments on lack of interaction with family while building DA. [17:52] Mentions Helen’s [HL] [first wife] tolerance. Story of structural problems with house on Westbury Road. [19:29] Comments on HL’s lack of involvement in JL’s scientific work. [20:05] Story of invention of argon detector [AD], involving relations with inventor of gas chromatograph, Archer Martin. [22:23] Description of AD. Story of accidental discovery of effectiveness of argon as carrier gas; instrument companies’ interest in the AD; WG Pye, Cambridge’s production of commercial gas chromatograph with AD [GCAD], establishing gas chromatography in various fields, including petroleum industry. [28:05] Story of displaying GCAD to petrochemists at University of Houston, United States; superseding of AD by flame ionisation detector. Mentions ‘Greens’ aversion to AD; turning down offers of partnership in instrument companies. [31:05] Mentions Electron Capture Detector [ECD]. [31:20] Description of the ‘signals’ of gas chromatograph produced using nitrogen and argon as carrier gases; output of gas chromatograph on chart recorder; method of interpreting peaks on chart, involving calibration. [37:45] Description of modern, politicised ‘Green movement’, distinct from amateur naturalist tradition, linked to ‘Silent Spring’, left-wing politics and unrealistic popular fear of radioactivity. Comments on sales representatives reporting AD wasn’t selling because of its radioactivity; ‘Green’ legislation concerning radioactivity. [42:55] Story of part buying Pixies Cottage [PC], Bowerchalke, Wiltshire, 1956, as holiday cottage. Mentions visiting Bowerchalke in 1936. Comments on problems of PC. Description of landscape surrounding village; Bowerchalke village; farms; villagers. Mentions Broadchalke. Negative comments on changes to village in 1960s. Description of effect on Wiltshire landscape of agribusiness. [46:58] Positive comments on NIMR, Mill Hill. Comments on significance of ECD. Story of CH supporting ECD work. Mentions completing ECD at Yale University. [49:04] Detailed description of ECD. [51:17] Description of relation between ECD and attached gas chromatograph, including typical succession of peaks produced by specific chemicals including CFCs. Comments on electron capturing substances. [56:19] Story of noticing summer haze at Bowerchalke in 1950s; borrowing ‘sun photometer’ from National Center for Atmospheric Research [NCAR], United States, to measure extent of haze; family measuring of haze; papers in ‘Atmospheric Environment’; process of reasoning that CFCs may be responsible; measuring CFCs using ECD in clear and hazed air. [58:23] Mentions never himself using ECD to detect pesticides. Story of difficulty of explaining mathematically how the ECD worked; solution achieved by using early Hewlett Packard desktop ‘calculator’. Mentions usefuleness of computer experience in later ‘Daisyworld’ work. [01:01:30] Comments on family’s lack of interest in ECD and work generally, contrasted with relationship with Sandy; separation of work and home; limitations of first marriage; effect of other scientists’ interest on Helen’s appreciation of his work; reasons for not bringing ECD home; writing at home; tendency not to work in evenings; nature of first marriage.

  • Description

    Life story interview with James Lovelock, independent scientist, environmentalist, author and researcher.

  • Related transcripts

    James Lovelock interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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