Review: Jim Lovelock in Prospect
November 23, 2007, 8:22 am
Filed under: Books, Earth history, Reviews received

Prospect cover december 2007After my having written about Jim for a couple of decades, Jim now gets to write about me. And he says kind things (for what it’s worth, I think this piece was almost certainly written before I heaped praise on him in Time).

Adverse climate change makes this a most important and timely book—not just for scientists, but for anyone who can think. Oliver Morton writes so engagingly that it reads as a well-crafted biography of the earth on behalf of the plant kingdom, tracing its evolution from tiny cyanobacteria 3.5bn years ago to the giant trees of today. Unlike a botanical text, Eating the Sun reveals the intricate chemical mechanisms by which sunlight is used by plants and how the sun powers everything that matters on earth.

Morton’s book is also about earth science, my own Gaia theory and the lives of the scientists most involved. He explains why Gaia theory is still regarded as a heresy against orthodox science. From my viewpoint he is very fair, especially since many of his witnesses are passionate defenders of orthodoxy

[…]The key to understanding why the earth is growing too hot for comfort is to understand that it is in some sense alive. Morton clearly presents a vision of a living planet, albeit one that would appear eccentric to life scientists … Soon the incremental heating from the earth itself will exceed our inputs and then further heating is unstoppable. Fortunately for us, earth history suggests that positive feedback will come to a natural stop and temperatures will stabilise five degrees above the present. The idea that we can stabilise rising temperature at some convenient level, say just two or three degrees above the pre-industrial norm, is probably the delusion of computer modellers.

[…] What makes this book so good is the way that Morton, as well as dealing with the issues, gives us portraits of the leading personalities. I was especially moved to be reminded of that rare figure Bob Spicer. Spicer is a real naturalist—one who wears muddy boots. Not one of those whose view is limited to a computer screen, like the environmental scientist who once said, “With a click of a mouse I can change the whole earth.” … A few good scientists bring us what Nasa calls “ground truth”—the solid facts we can rely on. Men and women like them grow rarer, as those who manage science believe that research money is better spent on modelling and brainstorming sessions than on messy and dangerous experiments and observations in some distant field. We … seem to have lost the checks and balances that were part of our earlier class-based society, one that scorned egalitarianism but welcomed merit.

Read the whole thing over over at Prospect.

And while logging media coverage, here’s something nice, suprising and odd — an appearance in a “books of the year” list. Nice for the obvious reasons, surprising because the Spectator is not necessarily a place that I would have expected so to appear (and Gary Dexter is not someone I know or know much of) and odd because I doubt anyone else will ever pair me up with Les Dawson (whose work as a science fiction writer had previously passed me by — a good thing, says Langford). But odd doesn’t mean unwelcome, or unininteresting — IDIC, as we say on Vulcan:

I bought Les Dawson’s Secret Notebooks (JR Books, £15.99) to see if it could furnish an explanation of why Les wrote A Time Before Genesis, the only serious fiction he ever produced, a disturbing novel of alien conspiracy, sexual mutilation and global apocalypse. Unfortunately it couldn’t, being mainly scribblings for his show spots and monologues — but it contained some gems of Dawsonian surrealism, such as: ‘I came from a very poor neighbourhood. Petty theft was rife. It got to the stage where we had to brand the greenfly.’ Continuing with the horticultural theme, Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton (Fourth Estate, £25) was a timely book. After 400 wide-ranging pages it was difficult to gainsay the author’s conclusion that the best prospect for future energy generation is solar: ‘new technologies that sit in the space between the photovoltaic cell and the leaf’.


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