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13 November 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Maverick or phoney: why Balotelli has nothing in common with Cantona

Ed Smith’s weekly column, Left Field. 

By Ed Smith

The scientist and inventor James Lovelock likens the act of discovery to catching a cricket ball. Understanding the process is neither possible nor desirable; it relies on intuition and instinct. The inventor is like “the catcher whose brain estimates the trajectory of a fast-moving ball and programmes the movement of their whole body so their hand can intercept the ball’s path”. The mind must be trained by practice but: “The act of catching is never done rationally or consciously; our conscious minds are too slow.”

On the evidence of his provocative new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, Lovelock’s mind is still moving swiftly, even halfway through his tenth decade. Lovelock originated Gaia theory – the notion that Planet Earth is a self-correcting or self-healing system – and invented the electron capture detector, critical to the detection of CFCs and their impact on the ozone layer.

His achievements, though great, may prove less instructive than his temperament. Lovelock is a pre-eminent example of a maverick who made a real and lasting contribution. He now fears that his kind of career is becoming impossible in today’s highly professionalised world. I found the story strangely familiar: Lovelock has witnessed the maverick being squeezed out of science, just as I am watching the maverick being sidelined by professionalism in sport.

When Lovelock began practising science some six decades ago, there was an established tradition of the lone, disinterested scientist. “Now they are as rare as ectoplasm,” he laments. Journals would not publish papers sent from a home address and chemical and radioactive suppliers would not sell to individuals. So Lovelock formed a commercial business, taking on commissions from Nasa and Shell.

He saw the life of a scientist-inventor as being like that of an artist or composer. Aspiring to a state of “autarky”, Lovelock funded his private research by accepting work from four or five providers. He would rather bang out “potboilers” than take one all-consuming job. “To work for a single provider,” he concluded, “is merely to become again a bought man . . . and this is not independence.”

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Reading Lovelock’s book reminded me of another autonomous scholar, Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, the oldest comprehensible European writing system. Lovelock was born in 1919 and Ventris in 1922 (he died in a car crash in 1956). Ventris was an architect by training, never went to university and treated Linear B as a kind of hobby. Where his rivals were secretive, Ventris would send them his notes to keep them posted on his progress. Breadth not only helped him to decipher Linear B, it also reinforced his generosity of spirit.

The decline of the independent thinker applies equally to sport. Coaching, like science, has been turned into a strict professional system. It has become suspicious of mavericks, especially autonomous ones who do not need the “system”. Just as science is dominated by the “serious scientist” who masters the bureaucratic apparatus to engineer government grants, sport has allowed the tracksuited official coach to bully the local enthusiast into extinction. Being good is less important than being familiar.

Yet truly outstanding coaches are often not formally trained – their curiosity leads them to proceed by empirical observation. John Inverarity, the former Australian cricketer, enjoyed remarkable success as the coach of Kent and Warwickshire, then more recently as Australia’s chairman of selectors. But his career was in education, as a headmaster. His cricketing posts were usually sabbaticals and he spent much of his time pretending he was “doing little or nothing”. It was a trick to reinforce players’ self-reliance and avoid a dependency culture towards coaches.

Like Lovelock, Inverarity hated the assumption that a professional ought to look and behave in a certain way. Where Lovelock preferred woolly jumpers to lab coats, Inverarity refused to wear a tracksuit. He would wander out for the pre-match “warm-up” in his chinos.

In golf, Jimmy Ballard has arguably helped more major winners than any other coach. But he has, in effect, been hounded out of the professional game. His crime is trying to make golf simple, where many earn a living from making it complicated. Where swing coaches with inferior track records have become celebrities, Ballard remains on the periphery.

Lovelock’s point about the decline of the maverick is that it has been largely an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate purge. In science, the process of peer review and the funding of science by grant agencies prejudice against outsiders. The committees try to be fair but they are inevitably drawn from corporate science. Lovelock does not think all scientists should be like him, just that his type should not be made extinct. He wants curiosity to survive the American trend of turning science into a “team sport played for prizes and recognition”. Ironically, the same process has also depleted actual team sports.

I would add one qualification. In celebrating genuine mavericks, we should be vigilant about phoney ones. The litmus test of a genuine maverick is whether his eccentricity is incidental. The genuine eccentric does not consider himself eccentric; he thinks the rest of the world odd for persevering with its irrationalities. The true maverick feels the overwhelming need to do his work, enjoying moments of recognition along the way. The pseudo-maverick craves constant adulation, resenting the way work interrupts.

As James Lovelock’s book reminded me, Mario Balotelli has nothing in common with Eric Cantona. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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