Novacene by James Lovelock

by stephenpalmersf

James Lovelock was one of my earliest influences when it came to writing fiction. I intuitively grasped the scope and profundity of his Gaia concept, and, although Gaia made no appearance in my debut Memory Seed, themes of environmental destruction and human narcissism implicit in the early reaction to Gaia emerged in my novel. Lovelock’s later work confirmed the man’s exceptional brilliance, in the public eye via his books, elsewhere (and perhaps more importantly) through a continuous supply of extraordinary inventions, not least the Electron Capture Detector, which led to the detection of CFCs throughout Earth’s atmosphere. Lovelock now calls himself an engineer rather than a scientist because he sees the real world as his prime source. (In earlier work he has been scathing about the primacy given to computer models.)

Novacene was written and published to mark his 100th birthday on 26th July 2019. Unlike his previous couple of works, which I found rather lacking in insight (especially the poor A Rough Ride To The Future, in which he speculated about things apparently at random), Novacene is a concise, profound and brilliantly incisive summary of his current thought. I was reminded of the work of Karen Armstrong (A Brief History Of Myth) and Yuval Noah Harari when reading it.

Lovelock covers three main areas: the nature of Gaia and the Solar System, the operation of Gaia, especially its ability to radiate heat and so keep the planet cool, and the arrival of hyperintelligent machines, which he believes we humans will have to work with in order to continue keeping the planet cool. He thinks the Anthropocene is almost over already, and will lead to the AI-managed Novacene. Particular emphasis is given to the Anthropic Principle and the notion that the evolution of the universe is a process of information, with a possible denouement as the universe comes to understand itself in some unimaginable future epoch. He believes we are alone, for reasons related to the Anthropic Principle, though personally I suspect this may be wrong, or at least premature.

In this book, unlike A Rough Guide To The Future, I feel the speculation is informed by Lovelock’s unique insight, which comes not only from his exceptional mind but also from a century of experience in science, engineering and invention. It’s an exhilarating, thought-provoking look at huge themes from the perspective of somebody who has given an enormous amount to humanity.

Highly recommended.