Britain has a long and noble tradition of independent thinkers and inventors – but very few ever escape the garden shed.

Fewer still are celebrated in their own lifetime, feted with medals, fellowships and honorary doctorates. And in that way James Lovelock breaks the mould.

Gaia hypothesis

When Lovelock first published his Gaia hypothesis its distinctly new-age title meant it instantly found a home among the early environmental movement of the late 1970s. But few mainstream scientists took it seriously.

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Its central tenet, that life on Earth modifies the biosphere of the planet so that it functions as a self-regulating system suited to supporting life, was seen as a bit deterministic, even fruity, for the scientific mainstream.

But now scientists broadly accept Gaia’s basic message.

Our planet does function a bit like an organism – cycles of water, nitrogen, carbon form a seamless interrelationship between physical and biological processes – sustaining life on Earth.

Lovelock’s original way of describing the planet’s life support systems helped shape current thinking about our climate and man’s influence on it.

Electron capture detector

In 2006 he was awarded the Royal Geological Society’s Wollaston Medal for his work – an honour he shares with Charles Darwin.

But Lovelock’s position as an independent scientist who has never held a full-time academic post is that he could succeed as a doer as well as a thinker.

In the early part of his career he invented the electron capture detector, which found a use as a detector of CFCs in very low concentrations in the atmosphere.

Lovelock’s device was used in some of the earliest work showing these CFC’s were destroying the ozone hole.

This was one of the first pieces of research that showed human activity was having a detrimental effect on our home planet.

Again it paved the way for subsequent thinking about greenhouse gases and climate change.

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