Thomas Gold (May 22, 1920 – June 22, 2004) was an Austrian born astrophysicist, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University, and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Gold was one of three young Cambridge scientists who in the 1950s proposed the now mostly abandoned 'steady state' hypothesis of the universe. Gold's work crossed academic and scientific boundaries, into biophysics, astrophysics, space engineering, and geophysics.
Gold was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, he was educated at Zuoz College in Switzerland, and in the UK at Trinity College, Cambridge. At the start of World War II, he endured internment as an enemy alien, during which time he met Hermann Bondi. Once released, he worked with Bondi and Fred Hoyle (near Dunsfold in Surrey) on radar, a partnership that would extend into astrophysics. Together, the three upset existing dogma with their unorthodox theories on the nature of the cosmos. He later worked at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, in Herstmonceux, Sussex, England, and at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In early 1959 he accepted an appointment at Cornell University, which had offered him the opportunity to set up an interdisciplinary unit for radiophysics and space research, and take charge of the Department of Astronomy. He remained at Cornell until his death.
He was married twice: to Merle Tuberg in 1947 and to Carvel Beyer in 1972. He had three daughters by his first wife and one by his second. He died at the age of 84.
Gold carried out research on cosmology and on magnetic fields, and coined the term 'magnetosphere' for the Earth's magnetic fields. Along with Bondi, he developed the steady-state theory. Soon after the discovery of pulsars in 1968, Gold and Fred Hoyle correctly identified these objects as rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields.
For a number of years, Gold promoted the idea that a thick layer of dust would cover many portions of the surface of the Moon. His opinion influenced the design of the American Surveyor lunar landing probes, but their precautions appeared excessive, as Gold had overestimated the extent to which cyclic thermal expansion and contraction would pulverize lunar surface rock. Regardless, he was prescient in proposing the general composition of the lunar regolith.
He won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985.
Gold achieved fame for his 1992 paper "The Deep Hot Biosphere" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which presented a controversial view of the origin of coal, oil, and gas deposits, a theory of an abiogenic petroleum origin. The theory suggests coal and crude oil deposits have their origins in natural gas flows which feed bacteria living at extreme depths under the surface of the Earth; in other words, oil and coal are produced through tectonic forces, rather than from the decomposition of fossils. At the beginning of his 1992 paper Gold also referred to ocean vents that pump bacteria from the depth of the earth towards the ocean floor in support of his views. A number of new such hydrothermal vents have since been discovered, as recently as 2007.
Gold also published a book of the same title in 1999, which expanded on the arguments in his 1992 paper and included speculations on the origin of life. He has been accused of stealing the abiogenic theory outright from Soviet geologists who first published it in the 1950s Although he later credited Soviet research, it is claimed that he first published a paper on the abiogenic theory in 1979 without citing any of the Soviet literature on the subject Gold's defenders maintain that these charges are unfounded: they say that, after first formulating his views on petroleum in 1979, he began finding the papers by Soviet geologists and had them translated. He was both disappointed (that his ideas were not original) and delighted (because such independent formulation of these ideas added weight to the hypothesis). They insist that he always credited the Soviet work once he knew about it.
According to Gold and the Soviet geologists who originated the abiogenic theory, bacteria feeding on the oil accounts for the presence of biological debris in hydrocarbon fuels, obviating the need to resort to a biogenic theory for the origin of the latter. The flows of underground hydrocarbons may also explain oddities in the concentration of other mineral deposits.
Most western geologists and petrologists consider petroleum abiogenic theories implausible and believe the biogenic theory of 'fossil fuel' formation adequately explains all observed hydrocarbon deposits. Most geologists do recognize the geologic carbon cycle includes subducted carbon, which returns to the surface, with studies showing the carbon does rise in various ways. Gold and geology experts point out the biogenic theories do not explain phenomena such as helium in oil fields and oil fields associated with deep geologic features.
However, recent discoveries have shown that bacteria live at depths far greater than previously believed. Whilst this does not prove Gold's theory, it may lend support to its arguments. A thermal depolymerization process which converts animal waste to carbon fuels does show some processes can be done without bacterial action, but does not explain details of natural oil deposits such as magnetite production.
An article on abiogenic hydrocarbon production in the February 2008 issue of Science Magazine reported how the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in nature may occur in the presence of ultramafic rocks, water, and moderate amounts of heat.