F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Billion year Brain

By Robert Leedham

Wired: Why do you insist on working on your own?
Lovelock: I find teamwork stifling. I compare the creative scientist with the artist or composer. You couldn't imagine one of them working in a team. Most scientists don't understand that individuals are sometimes more creative on their own than they are in a great big team. There's always somebody leading a team, and I don't want to be led.

So how do you go about it?
The key to success is never to do anything that's not interesting to you. What I do is get an idea and follow it up - and what's happened in the past is, it's nearly always led to a new instrument for measuring something that couldn't be measured before. I'd had to invent it in order to answer my problem. Then that instrument becomes a saleable item, so to speak.

That takes confidence.
If you can invent one thing, you can invent lots of things. If ever you meet somebody who says "they stole my invention!", you can be quite sure he's not an inventor - that he probably stole it from somebody else. That's why he's so indignant. If you're a real inventor you get so many inventions, the problem is getting people to take them, not having people steal them.

What's your most recent?
Probably something dull. A way of making helium ultra-pure.

Somebody told me you invented the microwave oven.
I don't know whether I can claim to have invented the micro-wave, but I was one of the very first to use one. My colleagues at the National Institute for Medical Research were doing the exciting stuff of freezing hamsters solid and then bringing them back to life again. It was horrific. They put a nearly red-hot spoon on the chest of the frozen animal to warm its heart up and get the blood circulating again. It burnt the hamster horribly. So I developed two forms of diathermy. One was radio frequency - but I was more interested in microwaves. I borrowed a continuous wave magnetron - which was still on the secret list in those days - from the Navy, and we were able to reanimate the animals without hurting them. Real science-fiction stuff. The animals were like blocks of wood - two minutes in the microwave, and they were running around.

It sounds great fun.
Well, in moments of musing, after a beer or something, I often wonder if our only function in this world is entertainment. I've noticed that the scientists who most succeed are the ones who are most entertaining. They're also the most highly paid.

You mean popularisers have to be entertaining?
I'm not sure that science itself isn't entertaining. That's where they're spoiling it with all this dreadful, impenetrable language nowadays - stylising it to the point where it's almost unrecognisable as entertainment.

How did Daisyworld come about?
The idea of Gaia came from looking for life on Mars with NASA. I realised you could just look at a planet's atmosphere to see if it had life on it or not. And looking at the earth's atmosphere, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was self-regulating. That's the Gaia hypothesis: life regulates the chemistry and climate of the earth to keep it comfortable for itself. Now along came the biologists, who said there's absolutely no way organisms can regulate anything beyond themselves. Ford Doolittle was quite crude about it. He said he didn't realise the animals had a meeting every year on Mount Ararat to decide on next year's weather. Anyway, a year later it dawned on me you could make a model of a planet - Daisyworld - to refute their criticisms.

Didn't Will Wright borrow Daisyworld's engine for SimEarth?
I think he went round to various people and found that their models wouldn't produce very stable planets. So he came to me. I don't know how much of SimEarth depends on Daisy-world, but I suspect that where it's stable it probably does.

What's special about your engine?
It's just closed-coupled feedback. The standard model replicates Darwinian natural selection, which has enormous positive feedback. That's why the systems go chaotic if you leave them. In the past, biologists constrained growth by limiting food supplies, which is not a very good way of doing it. But when you include environmental constraints, the thing purrs. If plants grow in such a way that the whole planet heats up then obviously they are going to stop growing, and vice versa. That gives you the negative feedback to match the positive feedback of exponential growth - the two coupled tightly together give you a beautifully stable system. You once said it would be a curse to have to run the planet's ecosystem for real. Yes. Would you trust the UN to regulate the level of oxygen in the atmosphere?

Are you worried by genetic engineering?
I don't know. In a sense, it's been going on on a random basis for three and a half billion years - and we're the end result. I don't think anybody's going to come up with something totally new, and even if they do, the probability is that it won't survive. I could be wrong. Somebody could make a human myxomatosis virus and wipe out 99 per cent of the population, but it's unlikely - or no more likely than it happening naturally anyway. Man is a gigantic niche with no predator. This is not natural biologically.

It's been suggested that Aids is a Gaian-style reaction by the planet to a species - man - that is too successful and threatens its long-term survival.
Well, we're just asking for some pandemic. As I say, we represent an enormous niche that's not being exploited - and any opportunistic organism that can find a way of exploiting us is going to do so. Sooner or later one is going to beat us. Aids would have been devastating had it been airborne.

So what's next for the planet after humans?
I often wonder whether we'll be superceded by silicon-based life. After all, computer viruses are almost alive. If natural selection operates on them - which it should on any living thing - it's an intriguing possibility that, as we grow more and more symbiotic with our constructs, we might evolve into something interesting. The planet's climate keeps getting hotter - one day the silicon side of us is going to be more comfortable than the organic side. The balance of power will shift.

Robert Leedham is features editor for Wired.