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Question the dogma!


My advice to young scientists
James Lovelock Scientist
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Doing science and becoming a famous scientist requires just as much dedication as becoming a…a famous painter or a novelist and quite often demands an awful lot of work on one's own. It's perfectly okay to have a career in science and an awful lot of scientists has done this, that way. But you have to recognise if you take on science as a way of making money and having a nine to five job, you are unlikely to sort of make many waves. It's not impossible, but it's not the same as really having a vocation. And that's the important point. You do have to have a sense of vocation. You have to be turned onto science very young, I think preferably before puberty, because that's the time when the young mind absorbs facts and methods just like a sponge and loves doing so and all of that information gathered in those young days becomes… not only do you remember it for life, but it's also immediately accessible. It's like the machine language of a computer. It's something that it can immediately use for practical purposes, and I think that turning on process, whether you're going to be an artist, a scientist or, is very important and it's why primary education is the most important education of all. I think what comes after puberty hardly matters at all. I don't mean that what we do after puberty doesn't matter, I mean what one's taught doesn't matter. That's the first kind of think I would advise a young scientist to have in mind.

The second kind of thing, which is equally important and I found important, is that you must treat your science professionally. And university training alone is not enough. It's a good idea to get as much hands-on experience by working as even a technician in some branch of science to get the feel of it, what it really means. Now this is understood in most other walks of life, but oddly in science it doesn't seem to be understood. I mean nobody would expect a photographer just to buy a camera and rush out and take pictures. He's got to do quite a bit of training before he can do it quite well, and the same is true of science.

So, that's the second important thing, is getting the professional attitude towards what you're going to do in your science in your life. Now, the next important thing I would advise any young scientist is that don't for a moment assume that you've got to have lots of money to do science, or that you need very expensive equipment and so on. To start with, there is an immense amount of science out there in the published literature, which you can see for yourself on the internet or anywhere else that has unanswered questions. You can start reading it and start thinking about it. Maybe if you think hard enough you'll find the answer. And that's the way many things are done. And if you consider the truly great scientists like Darwin or Einstein, they didn't have expensive equipment, they didn't spend vast sums of money. Einstein just had his pencil and paper and worked out his theories in his spare time when he was working daily as the clerk in the patent office at Bern. Darwin had a job as a naturalist on a navy ship and had he… the navy employed a dumber naturalist nothing would have come of it, but they might have been just as satisfied with the results. Darwin's work of course came from his mind, from his observations and has enriched all of us. And this is generally true, I think, the more money that is spent on a scientific, often the less use comes from it.

It employs lots of people of course, provides employment for scientists, but this isn't necessarily getting very far ahead. Let me give you my own example. I'd been much engaged with space research during my life and I actually have two bits of hardware sitting on Mars now in the Viking space craft that was sent there in 1975. All of the science work that I did that produced the prototypes of that, those essential components, was done in a cottage laboratory in Bowerchalke in Wiltshire at almost zero cost. So it is isn't necessary, even with space research, to have a huge expenditure or giant grants. You can do all sorts of things, and I would put out a challenge to young scientists around now: can any one of you, with no more funding than social security will give, really make a splash in the puddle of science? I think it could be done.

Born in Britain in 1919, independent scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock has worked for NASA and MI5. Before taking up a Medical Research Council post at the Institute for Medical Research in London, Lovelock studied chemistry at the University of Manchester. In 1948, he obtained a PhD in medicine at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and also conducted research at Yale and Harvard University in the USA. Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, but is perhaps most widely known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis. This ecological theory postulates that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth form a complex, self-regulating entity that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth and keep it healthy.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Bowerchalke, England, 1975, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein

Duration: 5 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: 2001

Date story went live: 21 July 2010