Here is a scientific story of mythic proportions with a boatload of characters and concepts to tug simultaneously at both your left and right brains:
In the 1960s, NASA really wanted to know if there was life on Mars, yet a Mars mission was still decades away. The agency hired James Lovelock, a British chemist, doctor and inventor to look into it. In consultation with his office mate, a certain Carl Sagan, Lovelock decided to undertake a simple test, one that could be done from Earth. Studying the Martian atmosphere with a spectrophotometer, and finding an atmosphere in which “nothing was happening,” Lovelock concluded that Mars was lifeless.
This did not make NASA very happy, and Lovelock returned to England to pursue temporary work with Shell Oil and the British security agency MI5–where else would a former doctor and Martian scientist go?!
Mulling over his research, however, Lovelock realized that the nature of his atmospheric test had more to say about the planet as a whole than about the presence or absence of living organisms. If the atmospheric character of a planet clearly indicated life (scientists call that “out of chemical equilibrium”), then it was likely that everything at the planet’s surface would be involved, not just organisms—while he found the Martian atmosphere to be inert (in equilibrium), that of Earth is wildly out of chemical equilibrium. This suggested to Lovelock that Earth is not just a planet with life on it, but is itself as living system, a “living planet.”
Enter William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies and Lovelock’s neighbor in England. Upon hearing Lovelock’s ruminations about a living Earth, Golding urged his friend to call his idea “Gaia,” after the Greek Goddess of Earth, to honor the fact that Western science was now rediscovering what ancient Western Culture held sensed mythically: that Earth is alive and that we are a part of her life.
Lovelock’s fateful decision to call his hypothesis “Gaia” created some distrust among scientists. Never mind that NASA named its space missions after Roman Gods—an idea named after a Goddess was just too much. Never mind that the “Ge” in “Geology” is just a different form of “Gaia.” Many scientists were put off by the wiggly name and distanced themselves from it for decades. However, one scientist who embraced Gaia from the start was microbiologist, Lynn Margulis. She came to the same conclusions as Lovelock from the angle that microorganisms gave birth to the Gaian system and continue to be its foundation. Margulis (who was Carl Sagan’s first wife) and their son, Dorion, researched and wrote about Gaia Theory for decades until her recent death.
The Gaia Hypothesis – now Gaia Theory in the eyes of many – has profoundly influenced leaders and thinkers around the world, including Vaclav Havel, Al Gore, Tim Flannery (author of The Weather Makers, a best-selling book on climate change,) and many others. It may be the most powerful and pertinent idea available to humanity today yet chances are you’ve not heard about it. If this is the case, open the door to the wonderful world of Gaia: your mythic roots and modern science are beckoning! www.gaiatheory.org
Martin Ogle recently retired after 27 years as the Chief Naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. He is a recognized expert on and advocate of Gaia Theory, having collaborated with scientists in the field and presented hundreds of presentations and courses on the subject. He has just launched a business in Louisville, CO, “Entrepreneurial Earth, LLC” (www.EntrepreneurialEarth.com) and is available to present lectures and workshops on Gaia Theory. Martin welcomes questions and feedback at email@example.com