Thomas Gold

Throughout his career as an astronomer, Thomas Gold (born 1920) has been no stranger to controversy. He has argued for a "steady-state" theory of the origin of the universe rather than the more popular big bang theory. He has also postulated a geological origin of petroleum rather than the traditional biological one. Though he has been overruled by the majority of the scientific community on both counts, he continues to stand by his theories.


A Childhood In Vienna

Gold was born on May 22, 1920, in Vienna, Austria. His father, Max Gold, was the director of Austria's largest mining and smelting company, and his mother, Josefine, was a former child actress. Gold recalled having a very comfortable childhood and noted that his parents were active in their children's lives. All that ended when Europe entered a depression. Sensing that the company he ran would suffer in the economic downturn, the elder Gold accepted a senior partnership in a metals trading firm in Berlin, Germany. However, they left Berlin in 1933 as Adolf Hitler (Gold's father was Jewish) gained more power.

For the next four years, Gold's parents traveled throughout Europe. After spending much time in Italy, they finally settled north of London in 1937. For many years later, Gold reminisced, the family carried with it acquired table silver and original renaissance art from Italy and Spain as a hedge against losing all their wealth in the turmoil surrounding World War II.

School Days

Gold attended boarding school in Switzerland, from the age of 13 until he joined his family in England at age 17. He then enrolled in Trinity College of Cambridge University, where he earned his bachelors degree in mechanical sciences in 1942 and his masters degree in 1946. It was there at the close of his student career, though he'd studied physics and astronomy, that he proposed and won a fellowship to study the detection of sounds by the inner ear.

Because of the war, Gold's years at Cambridge were somewhat chaotic. At the beginning of World War II, he was interned for nine months because of his nationality and sent to a camp in Canada. When he was released, he rejoined his degree program, and graduated after attending only two of the normal three years. While still in school, he joined friends working for the British Admiralty Signals Establishment developing radar. Though he had trouble at first getting clearance for the top-secret work, he eventually became chief of a laboratory developing anti-jamming devices and Doppler radar which would display only moving targets.

During his tenure at the radar lab, Gold noticed that devices developed for creating images of ships and airplanes could be adapted to reveal the inner structure of his hand. He applied for a grant to refine the first sonography, but was turned down since, the laboratory claimed, it had no room for additional research. The same idea was pursued by others a decade later.

Following completion of his masters degree, Gold worked another year at the Cavendish Laboratory. The associations he formed during an unexciting magnetron assignment helped Gold between 1947 and 1949 as he studied the mammalian ear, completing work on his Trinity College prize fellowship by 1951. Also during this period, Gold developed the steady-state theory of the expanding universe with Hermann Bondi and Fred Hoyle. Though that theory fell out of favor with the increased acceptance of the "big bang" theory, its influence is still felt since it raised basic questions and stimulated essential research in cosmology.


After a stint as university demonstrator in physics at the Cavendish Laboratory from 1949 to 1952, Gold took a position as senior principal scientific officer with the Royal Greenwich Observatory. As chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal, Gold oversaw the varied research departments of the observatory. He became most involved with research on the sun and magnetic fields, and later coined the term 'magnetosphere' to describe the field associated with a star or planet. Gold's work with positional astronomers led to his important contribution to Nature in 1955, entitled "Instability of the Earth's Axis of Rotation." In that article, Gold noted that the position of the rotational pole on the earth's surface can change without affecting the direction of the axis in space, thus causing an apparent change of latitude of points on the earth's surface. He speculated that such changes could result from a redistribution of matter or angular momentum in the rotating earth. The theory was confirmed four decades later.

When the mantle of Astronomer Royal passed to a new man Gold decided to leave. He first accepted a professorship at Harvard University in 1957, and then deciding he preferred country living, moved to Cornell University. He was chair of the astronomy department until 1968, director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research from 1959 to 1981, and Assistant Vice President for Research from 1969 to 1971. Gold retired in 1986, and then became arguably even more active as professor emeritus at Cornell. Also in 1986, he was named an honorary Fellow of Trinity College. Other honors bestowed on Gold included the John F. Lewis Prize of the American Philosophical Society in 1972, the Alexander von Humboldt Prize in 1980, and the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal in 1985.


Beyond Astronomy

By the time Gold retired, he was widely recognized for his habit of questioning the most basic assumptions underlying scientific dogma in any field. Gold once insisted, "It wasn't that I was particularly contrary. I look at what is known about a case and what is the best explanation for it. I refuse to take anybody's word for it." His willingness to question, he said, grew out of his wide-ranging interests and his penchant for finding errors in textbooks he read as background for further study. In explaining his credo, Gold quoted Hungarian physicist Albert Szent-Gyrgyi: "Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody has thought."

Simon A. Cole, in an analysis of Gold's brand of science published in Social Studies of Science, wrote, "Gold endorses a broad, interdisciplinary model of science, which integrates evidence from disparate disciplines … Gold's model of science resembles Thomas Kuhn's: specialists are best qualified to carry out 'normal science, ' but it takes an outsider to challenge the very foundations of a field, to effect a scientific revolution."

Nowhere was this propensity more evident than in Gold's challenge to the entire petroleum industry. He insisted that the geological dogma which states that natural gas, oil, and coal are all derived from fossilized organic matter is simply wrong. Instead, Gold postulated a cosmic origin for hydrocarbons, dating to the very formation of the earth.

To prove his point, the cosmologist-turned-geochemist inspired the drilling of an oil well 6.6 km deep where a petroleum geologist might least expect to strike oil, into the granite of Sweden over the traces of an ancient meteorite impact. To Gold, the results were conclusive, proving his hypothesis beyond a doubt. To others, oil and microbes found in the well looked more like contamination than proof.

Tempers flared and charges flew. Some claimed that Gold was simply a charlatan and that he profited from the drilling in Sweden at the expense of investors. When a book published by the United States Geological Survey containing an article by Gold was published, 34 prominent geologists signed a letter demanding it be withdrawn, charging Gold's work was unscientific. Gold countered by suing the author of the letter for libel. He later dropped the suit after receiving a formal apology.

If anything, the dispute made Gold even more determined to make his point. After his initial theory on the origins of hydrocarbons, he plunged into speculation on the concentration of minerals by the movements of hydrocarbons through the earth's mantle and crust, the prediction of earthquakes, and the origins of life.

Several years into his retirement, Gold showed no sign of reducing his scientific output. With over 280 publications under his name, Gold challenged his detractors in an Omni article by Anthony Liversidge. Quoting Tolstoy, Gold commented, "Most men … can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it obliges them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven thread by thread into the fabric of their lives."


Further Reading on Thomas Gold

Wilson, J.P., and D.T. Kemp, Cochlear Mechanisms, Plenum Publishing Corporation, 1989.

American Scientist, July/August 1984; September/October 1997.

Lingua Franca, December/January 1998.

Nature, March 26, 1955; January 4, 1969; December 23/30, 1993; January 5, 1995.

Omni, June 1993.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 1992.

Scientific American, November 1987.

Social Studies of Science, 1966, p. 733-766.

Thomas Gold, interviews by Alan Morse, March 26, 1998; March 30, 1998.