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GAIA

I met Jim Lovelock for the second time in 1972. By then, he had talked enough for me to obtain a glimmering notion of his Gaia idea. As a committee member on various advisory boards for NASA, he was preoccupied, in his tinkery sort of way, with the problem of how one could objectively determine if life existed on Mars. What was obvious to him, after measuring reactive gases of biological origin such as ammonia, methane, and nitrogen and sulfur oxides, was that the air was loaded with exudates of life. These gases were accompanied by many other detectable trace compounds such as terpenes (piny essences), volatile amines (garbage smells), and methyl bromide (seaweed odor). Yet, as every chemistry student knows, all of these reduced organic compounds react readily and easily with oxygen and, from the point of view of chemistry alone, they should not be present for long in air samples. This thinking led Lovelock to the unassailable conclusion that the search for life on Mars should mainly be a thorough gas analysis that not only identified every gaseous component of Martian air but also measured their fluxes: the rate at which each was produced and removed. He figured: because the Earth's air is made of highly reactive mixtures, it shows the unmistakable presence of life. He suggested looking for reactive mixtures, or at least changes in gas concentrations, in the atmospheres of Mars and other planets, to see if any explanation beyond chemistry and physics would be required for understanding them.

As we talked about the biological effects of life on a planetary scale we made each other aware of the fact that all live beings produce and remove gas. All life requires the production of some gases and the removal of others (for instance, plants release oxygen and carbon dioxide to the air; animals and plants remove oxygen from the air). Microbes produce and remove a great range of other gases as well. Yes, we concluded with enthusiasm, the atmosphere is the circulatory system of the biosphere.

After making some conversational "Interactive Lecture [IAL]" tapes with Dr. Stewart Wilson, inventor the IAL system, we became more excited about the idea. By then Lovelock had published with Peter Liss and Dian Hitchcock on "detection of life throughout the atmosphere." Lovelock complained that no one seemed to understand what he was saying. In his frustration he turned to his neighbor, the novelist William Golding, for "a good four-letter word to focus the attention of his scientific colleagues on the Earth as a system." Golding suggested "Gaia."

When we first recorded our preliminary Gaia conversation, Stewart Wilson failed to engage one of the two recording buttons. He never did figure out what went wrong, but we had talked the entire day and not a word besides "testing, testing" had been recorded. We had two choices: forget it or rerecord two days hence, just prior to Lovelock's takeoff from Logan Airport. We opted for the latter. The consequence of our decision was striking. The new, far finer, shorter, and better-organized dialogue inspired us to write up these ideas for scientific publication.

We wrote our first Gaia paper on life as the circulatory system of the atmosphere as a short, readable statement, in the style of the American Scientist, which we circulated to many scientific colleagues and friends for perusal and suggestions. After an unconscionably long wait, American Scientist rejected the article. We sent it out to others; while it was incubating, I received a call from Stewart Brand, founder and then-editor of CoEvolution Quarterly. Brand proved to me that he was all right, and no kook, because he already was friends with Phylis and Phil Morrison (extraordinary science teachers and writers, he for over thirty years as Scientific American's book reviewer). In his inimitable fashion, Stewart wasted no time: "I want to publish your paper with Lovelock." I asked him how he planned to review, edit, and change it. He said he liked it as it was. He was not a scientist and had no intention of altering it. He would publish the entire piece, illustrations, tables, and all. I was amazed. I blurted out, "But no scientist reads CQ. No one will trust our science if our work appears in your magazine before publication in a professional journal!" I remember distinctly his unambiguous response: "What do you care what people think? You want to see the Gaia idea out, don't you?"

Thus began the life of the Gaia hypothesis independent of Lovelock, of me, and of the scientific community. Of course work went on. The ideas, boosted mightily by Jim Lovelock's 1979 Oxford University Press book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth , were discussed in some scientific quarters. Within the evolutionist establishment, led primarily by Oxford University's Richard Dawkins, they denigrated, derided, and ignored Gaia as if she were an old witch. In the end, the scientific community of scholars co-opted our scientific ideas (to our delight). Still railing against the G-word (Gaia), they infiltrated their research with G-concepts. Atmospheric chemists, environmental scientists, planetary astronomers, geophysicists, geomorphologists, geographers, ecologists, and the public called this new view of our living planet "Earth System Science."