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Thomas Gold, 84; Took Unorthodox Path to Scientific Discoveries

June 26, 2004|Eric D. Tytell | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Gold, a renowned astronomer known for controversial theories on everything from the origin of the universe to the inner workings of the human ear, has died. He was 84.

Gold, professor emeritus of astronomy at Cornell University, died Tuesday at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, N.Y., after a long battle with heart disease.

Dedicated to pursuing his ideas wherever they took him, Gold ranged across fields as diverse as cosmology and astrophysics, lunar and terrestrial geology, and physiology and microbiology. Gold's colleagues were continually startled by his ability to propose outrageous theories that provoked intense discussion and new discoveries, and often proved to be right.

He is perhaps best known, though, for an idea that ultimately proved to be wrong, but nonetheless stimulated important research.

Working with astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi in the 1940s at Cambridge University, Gold developed an alternative to the Big Bang theory, proposing that the universe had no beginning or end, but rather expanded throughout time by continually creating new matter.

In the end, attempts to validate his theory led to its downfall and the acceptance of the Big Bang hypothesis. But along the way, scientists discovered how different chemical elements are formed in the centers of stars, a cornerstone of modern astrophysics.

Undeterred, Gold once said, "in choosing a hypothesis, there isn't any virtue in being timid."

Gold showed no timidity again in a 1968 explanation of pulsars.

Discovered that year, pulsars are objects in deep space that produce regular, repeating bursts of radio noise. Gold developed a theory that the objects were incredibly dense neutron stars spinning like tops. Like the light from a lighthouse, he explained, beams of radiation emitted from the stars' poles sweep in a circle, appearing to pulse on and off when the beam intersects with the Earth.

At the time, his theory was considered so ridiculous that he was not even allowed to present it at a conference. But observations of a pulsar in the Crab nebula showed that the pulses were slowing down, just as he had predicted, and the theory of pulsars as spinning neutron stars went on to universal acceptance.

Time proved Gold right again when he challenged the dogma on how the human ear distinguishes tones, one of his largest leaps across scientific disciplines. In the 1970s, after 30 years of dismissing him as a meddling outsider, audiologists discovered tiny resonating "hair cells" in the ear that proved his idea was correct.

"I enjoy shaking the scientific community by the neck," he once said.

After he retired from Cornell in 1986, he continued shaking, proposing his most controversial theory. Outlined in his 1998 book, "The Deep Hot Biosphere," the idea challenges the accepted wisdom of how oil and natural gas are formed and, along the way, proposes a new theory of the beginnings of life on Earth and potentially on other planets.

True to the name "fossil fuels," most geologists view oil and natural gas as fossils: the bodies of dead organisms, converted under heat and pressure into hydrocarbon fuels. They assert that the biological material they invariably find mixed in with the hydrocarbons confirms this view.

But Gold wasn't convinced. He proposed that the hydrocarbons were not biological, but rather were formed 4.5 billion years ago as the Earth congealed and were now percolating up through the crust.

This vision implies that fossil fuels are basically unlimited, if one drills deep enough, but also offers a striking view on the beginnings of life on Earth as a way to explain the biological material in fossil fuels.

The material, he asserted, comes from strange single-celled organisms called archaea that thrive deep below the Earth's surface by feeding on the hydrocarbons.

Most biologists believe archaea are a form of surface-dwelling life that evolved to tolerate the extreme conditions below the surface. Gold flipped that idea on its head, suggesting that all above-ground life is an offshoot of subterranean life forms.

If surface life evolved from subterranean archaea, then other planets in the solar system, such as Mars and Venus, could also be teeming with life, just below the surface where we can't see it.

Gold began subverting the dominant paradigm as a graduate student at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England.

Born in Vienna, he fled Hitler to study at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees. World War II prevented him from continuing on to his doctorate; instead, he developed new radar systems for the British Admiralty.

After the war, Harvard hired Gold as a professor of astronomy, despite his lack of a doctorate, and he later moved to Cornell. He did not receive his degree from Cambridge until 1969, 11 years after he left England.

At Cornell, Gold served as director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, was chairman of the astronomy department, served as assistant vice president for research, and finally was the John L. Wetherill professor of astronomy.

"Gold epitomized Cornell's openness to offbeat geniuses," wrote science biographer Keay Davidson.

On campus, he was notoriously energetic in his scientific studies and athletically, often surprising younger colleagues by leaping up stairs two at a time, and by water-skiing, mountain climbing and even tightrope walking.

He is survived by his wife, Carvel; their daughter, Lauren; and three daughters and six grandchildren from his marriage to Merle Eleanor Tuberg.

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