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James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory saw the Earth as alive, dies at 103

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  1. patience_limited

    Dr. Lovelock’s breadth of knowledge extended from astronomy to zoology. In his later years he became an eminent proponent of nuclear power as a means to help solve global climate change and a pessimist about humankind’s capacity to survive a rapidly warming planet.

    But his global renown rested on three main contributions that he developed during a particularly abundant decade of scientific exploration and curiosity stretching from the late 1950s through the last half of the ’60s.

    One was his invention of the Electron Capture Detector, an inexpensive, portable, exquisitely sensitive device used to help measure the spread of toxic man-made compounds in the environment. The device provided the scientific foundations of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” a catalyst of the environmental movement.

    The detector also helped provide the basis for regulations in the United States and in other nations that banned harmful chemicals like DDT and PCBs and that sharply reduced the use of hundreds of other compounds as well as the public’s exposure to them.

    Later, his finding that chlorofluorocarbons — the compounds that powered aerosol cans and were used to cool refrigerators and air-conditioners — were present in measurable concentrations in the atmosphere led to the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. (Chlorofluorocarbons are now banned in most countries under a 1987 international agreement.)

    But Dr. Lovelock may be most widely known for his Gaia theory — that Earth functioned, as he put it, as a “living organism” that is able to “regulate its temperature and chemistry at a comfortable steady state.”

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