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Gold, Thomas


(b. Vienna, Austria, 22 May 1920; d. Ithaca, New York, 22 June 2004),

cosmology, astrophysics, geophysics, space science, physiology of hearing.

Gold, together with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi, originated the steady state model of the universe, in competition with the previously existing and eventually dominant evolutionary (or big bang) model. He also contributed important ideas to our understanding of pulsars (rotating, magnetized neutron stars left from supernova explosions), the physics of astronomical dust, solar flares and energetic particles, interstellar gas, and the operation of the cochlea in human hearing.

Early Years . Industrialist Maximillian Gold (of Jewish heritage) moved with his wife, Josephine, daughter Elizabeth, and son Thomas from Vienna to Berlin shortly after Adolf Hitler’s 1933 rise to power, being protected initially by their foreign citizenship. They soon decided, however, that it would be wiser to move on to London, sending Tommy (as most of his friends called him) or Tom (as he called himself in later life) to boarding school in Zuoz, Switzerland. His skill in downhill skiing dated from that period, with comparable fondness for water skiing developing later. Elizabeth eventually settled permanently in Switzerland and died there.

Returning to England in 1938, Gold enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, to read mechanical sciences (BA 1942, MA 1946). In 1940 the British government,

concerned about possible fifth columnists, interned Gold and many other Austrian and German émigrés as enemy aliens. After a brief stay in a camp in Bury St. Edmunds, Gold was sent to Canada, and it took fifteen months before he was declared a friendly alien and sent back to Britain to take up war work. By remarkable coincidence, in the same camp was Hermann Bondi, a fellow Viennese Jew, also a student at Trinity, though they had not previously met. The slightly more senior camp resident Max Perutz organized an informal “school,” at which the young students could teach each other. Bondi’s extraordinary mathematical skills and Gold’s outstanding physical insights soon became obvious and complementary.

After Bondi was liberated in 1942, he and Fred Hoyle, who had recently completed a Cambridge degree in applied mathematics, were established in a cottage in Dunsfold, Surrey, to work on radar devices and anti-U-boat warfare. Gold soon joined them, and many of their leisure hours were spent discussing a wide range of scientific issues, including cosmology (the large-scale structure of the universe). The three remained collaborators for many years.

Gold returned to Cambridge in 1946, holding a one-year research grant at the Cavendish Laboratory of Physics, a two-year Medical Research Council Grant at the Zoological Laboratory (1947–1949), and a demonstrator (teaching) position back at Cavendish from 1949 to 1952. He became a British subject in February 1947. During this period, he worked first with R. J. Pumphrey on how resonance and feedback in the cochlea permit much better pitch discrimination by the human ear than would initially seem possible. The resulting papers were largely ignored at the time but were cited quite frequently in the 1990s, when it became clear that the ear must be an active organ during the hearing process. Gold never completed a PhD (nor did Hoyle), but he received an honorary Cambridge DSc in 1969.

Steady State Cosmology . In 1948 came a pair of papers, one by Bondi and Gold and a more mathematical one by Hoyle, putting forward the idea of a steady state universe. This incorporated the observed fact of the expansion of the universe (a discovery of Edwin Hubble), but, instead of the expansion resulting in an ever-decreasing density of matter, new matter appeared and formed new galaxies. Thus, on average, a steady state universe looks the same to observers at all times, as well as at all places (as also in evolutionary cosmologies). The authors’ motivations were at least twofold. The first, and to them philosophically the more important, was to place the process of creation in the present time and in nearby places, where it might be studied scientifically. Second, the steady state model overcame some practical problems with evolutionary models, particularly

an apparent age discrepancy in which the universe seemed to be younger than the Sun and many other stars. A steady state universe has both an infinite past and an infinite future, while evolutionary models have finite age.

Steady state was of enormous importance in the history of astronomy, because it turned cosmology into a serious, observational part of science, by making predictions different from those of an evolutionary universe, for which Hoyle coined the name big bang. The predictions included numbers, sizes, colors, and brightnesses of galaxies at large distances compared to those near us. A number of astronomers, both optical and in the new community of radio observers, turned their attention to testing the predictions, sometimes with a explicit goal of “disproving steady state.” Observations gradually accumulated and, in due course, showed that in fact the universe has changed a great deal with time. It was hot and dense long ago (“standard hot big bang”), and galaxies were once young, blue, and bright while they formed their first generations of stars.

The apparent difficulties with big bang models faded with better estimates of the cosmic expansion rate (first from Walter Baade, and later from Allan R. Sandage and others), and direct supporting evidence for the hot, dense past came with the 1965 discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (shared Nobel Prize in Physics, 1978). That radiation was once gamma rays about 15 billion years ago, then x-rays, ultraviolet, visible light, and infrared, and, with the continuing expansion of the universe, the photons have now been redshifted (dragged to longer wavelengths) until they are microwaves with a temperature of 2.7 K. Thus the number of professional astronomers and cosmologists who took steady state seriously declined from many to few to, after the mid-1970s, almost none except the original proposers and a handful of their coworkers. A recent variant, called quasi-steady-state, clings to precarious life in occasional journal publications and conference talks. Gold’s last published cosmology paper appeared in 1973, but both public lectures and private conversion made clear that he continued to regard steady state as closer to the truth than a universe with a finite past.

Later Career . Gold was appointed chief assistant at Greenwich Observatory in 1952, under Harold Spencer Jones (Astronomer Royal, 1933–1955). In 1957, he accepted a professorship of astronomy at Harvard University, becoming the Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy there in 1958. Cornell University appointed him professor of astronomy, chair of the (then very small) department, and founding director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research, all in 1959. He remained chairman until 1968 and director until 1981, building these institutions up into major ones by means of both new appointments (including Yervant Terzian, who eventually took over the chairmanship) and collaborations with people in other departments (Edwin E. Salpeter in nuclear physics, Marshall Cohen in electrical engineering, and Gordon Pettengill in earth and planetary sciences, among others). The center built and operated what is still the world’s largest single radar and radio astronomy dish at Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, as part of the National Astronomy and Ionospheric Center. The name reflects that the 1,000-foot dish had originally been intended for ionospherics—studies of the upper, ionized layers of Earth’s atmosphere. But Gold and his colleagues made it, in addition, a unique facility for radar and radio astronomy.

He held the John L. Wetherill Chair from 1971 until his statutory retirement in 1985, after which he briefly returned to Cambridge and an honorary fellowship at Trinity, his old college. The family returned soon to Ithaca, and Gold remained active in astronomy for more than a decade beyond his retirement. He became a U.S. citizen in about 1964.

Among the honors accorded Gold were memberships in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society (London), lectureships and visiting professorships in Bonn, Copenhagen, and Toronto, and both the Gold Medal and the George Darwin Lectureship of the Royal Astronomical Society (London). Close colleagues were of the opinion that these honors would have been even more numerous if Gold had not spent quite such a large fraction of his time in both scientific and political semi-opposition to most of the astronomical and geophysical communities. He started writing, for instance, on science that could be done from space in 1954, but slowly evolved into a serious opponent of a human presence in space for scientific purposes, testifying before the U.S. Congress and elsewhere against Skylab, the shuttle, and the international space station.

One can count twenty or more ideas that came first or most vigorously from Gold. “Right” and “wrong” is too simple a classification; indeed for some the votes are not all yet in. But “controversial” applies to most, and one of his own summaries of his intellectual career is titled “Controversial Topics.”

Controversies and Prescience: Cambridge and the United States . Gold’s later years at Cambridge coincided with the rise of radio astronomy there and elsewhere, and several of the controversies arose from that concatenation. Martin Ryle, head of the Cavendish radio astronomy group, had called the sources they were discovering “radio stars,” implying a location within the Milky Way. Gold said and wrote in 1951 that the sources must be outside our galaxy, associated with other, perhaps very distant, galaxies. Identification of the sources with visible objects showed this to be correct. But it then became possible to use counts of the sources as a cosmological test. It was one that, when the smoke had cleared, had ruled out steady state from about 1955 onward, though not quite so firmly as Ryle had originally claimed. John Bolton produced the most reliable counts, showing that a larger fraction of galaxies had been radio sources in the past than now.

Gold’s contributions to understanding of magnetic phenomena on cosmic scales began in Cambridge. He wrote on the connection between Earth’s rotation and its magnetic field in 1949 and, in 1959, coined the name magnetosphere to describe the region of space where effects of that field dominate those of the solar wind. He and Bondi wrote in 1950 on the processes that generate magnetic fields in Earth and elsewhere, and Gold’s 1955 paper on turbulence in interstellar gas introduced the idea of magnetohydrodynamic shock waves, now recognized in a variety of laboratory and astronomical contexts. In partial collaboration with Hoyle, Gold put forward the ideas that both solar flares and the heating of the solar corona derive their energy from magnetic fields tangled by solar rotation and photospheric motions and that the energy can be

released very quickly by reconnection of magnetic field lines, which squeeze electric currents and so accelerate particles (1956–1960).

By contrast, when the polarization of starlight was discovered in 1949 by John Scoville Hall and William Hilt-ner at Yerkes Observatory, it was Leverett Davis and Jesse Greenstein at the California Institute of Technology who came forward with a magnetic model, in which the polarization was due to scattering by interstellar dust grains aligned with a galactic magnetic field (later shown to exist and to be responsible for radio emission from the galactic plane). Gold, however, put forward a nonmagnetic model, in which grains were set spinning by collisions with gas molecules and aligned by gas streaming in the plane. Modern thought requires both processes: collisions set grains spinning, but they are magnetically aligned.

In the days before mantle convection, plate tectonics, and continental drift were accepted as the cause of particular regions of Earth’s crust having been at very different magnetic and geographical latitudes in the past, Gold pointed out that Earth’s rotation axis could shift by large amounts relative to the surface without violating conservation of angular momentum. (The standard analogy is a cat or a diver twisting over in midair to come down right side up.) It has since been shown, partly by Gold, that Earth’s rotation axis is stabilized against large shifts of this sort by the Moon, but that Mars is subject to them.

Most incendiary of all was the outcome of Gold’s thinking about likely conditions on the lunar surface. He considered the accumulation of micrometeorites, sputtering of rock when it was repeatedly heated and cooled by large amounts (as happens on the airless and slowly rotating moon), and the effects of direct exposure to ultraviolet and x-ray radiation from the Sun, and concluded that there would be a surface dust layer, probably very thick and hazardous to both manned and unmanned landers. Also important in his 1955 and later papers on this topic was an electrostatic mechanism of dust transport, so that all surfaces would be covered. When the Lunar Surveyors and Apollo landers got to the Moon, dust there certainly was enough to take clear footprints and cling (electrostatically and annoyingly) to everything, but it did not have the quicksandlike properties that Gold was generally thought to have predicted. Indeed after the return of the first lunar seismic data, recording the patterns of small quakes caused by meteorite impacts, he concluded in

1969 that the Moon responded as one would expect from a deep but highly compressed layer of powder. Another contemporary reaction to the very short lunar ring down-time was that lunar rocks must have some of the acoustic properties of green cheese.

After moving to the United States, Gold continued to put forward new ideas in connection with still other astronomical and planetary phenomena, some of them well in advance of their time. These included:

  1. the 1961 proposal that interstellar gas would be dominated by molecular hydrogen and a 1963 collaboration with Robert Gould and Edwin Salpeter to explain its formation on dust grain surfaces (the molecular component is now thought to be only slightly less massive than the cool, atomic hydrogen phase);
  2. analyses of the rotation of Mercury (1965, with Stanton Peale), the rotation period being two-thirds of the orbit period, and of Venus (1969, with Steven Soter), the solid planet rotation being phase-locked to passages by Earth, but the atmosphere rotating much faster, and of structure in the rings of Uranus (1977, with Stanley Dermott), again resonance phenomena;
  3. a maser interpretation for the newly discovered bright emission by OH molecules (1966, with Francis Perkins and Salpeter); and
  4. the possibility of operating two or more radio telescopes as an interferometer, even without any connection between them, provided only that each was equipped with a clock sufficiently accurate to record phases as well as amplitudes of the waves received by each.

All of these ideas are today part of mainstream astronomy, and indeed Very Long Baseline Interferometry, using accurate clocks rather than delay lines, now spans the diameter of Earth and even small steps into space.

Pulsars and Beyond . Reading these many papers one is struck by how rarely Gold provided numerical estimates or calculations for the phenomena he was proposing. This is true also for the best-known and most-cited of his Cornell papers. The discovery of pulsars was announced by a group of Cambridge (U.K.) radio astronomers in March 1968. Gold’s explanation of them, as neutron stars rotating at the pulsation periods (then 0.25 to 1.33 seconds) and radiating from the analog of sunspots as a result of strong magnetic fields, appeared within a few months. It was, however, left for others to calculate how strong the fields would have to be and what one would expect them to be if a neutron star was the remnant core of a massive normal star with an initial field of hundreds or thousands of gauss, as commonly observed. This history has two curious side branches. First, just down the hall from Gold at the time was the office of Franco Pacini (later director of Arcetri Observatory in Florence), who had been thinking about what neutron stars should be like (rapidly rotating and strongly magnetic) and attempting to associate them with supernova remnants before the discovery of pulsars. Second, it was the Arecibo radio telescope (operating in the receiver mode that Gold had insisted upon a decade before) that collected data on the pulsar in the Crab Nebula supernova remnant showing conclusively that Gold and Pacini were on the right track and permitting accurate measurements of neutron star magnetic fields and ages.

In three additional areas, Gold put forward ideas over a number of years without the scientific issues ever being fully resolved. First (from 1958 to 2003) is the question of the direction of the flow of time (“arrow of time”). There seem to be three separate arrows, all pointing in the same direction. One comes from the expansion of the universe, one from thermodynamics (the cream never unstirs itself from the coffee), and one from the behavior of light (which could, according to Maxwell’s equations, go backward in time, but never seems to). Gold suspected that the cosmic expansion drove the other two and, as a result, if the universe should eventually recontract, all of physics would be reversed. A big bang universe could indeed recontract (though apparently ours will not); a steady state universe cannot, an additional argument in its favor in Gold’s mind.

Second (1974–1997) was consideration of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and ways we might communicate with it. Gold was a member of the optimistic school, thinking even that life might have first reached Earth from elsewhere. He supported the radio search efforts by his Cornell colleague Frank Drake (long director of Arecibo and originator of an eponymous equation to estimate the frequency of inhabited planets). Gold even suggested, perhaps tongue in cheek, that the interstellar masers might be the broadcast stations of other civilizations.

Third, relatively late in his career (1977–1997), Gold adopted a view, already fairly common in the Russian geophysical community, that there were very large quantities of methane (pronounced, of course, with the long British “e”) that had been trapped inside Earth since the time of its formation, and that this gas was gradually leaking out and being partially transformed into petroleum by bacteria living very deep inside the crust. This, if true, would of course make an enormous difference to the total amount of oil and gas available for future use. At Gold’s urging, a couple of very deep boreholes were drilled in Sweden at

promising sites. These found, if not upward-flowing gas and oil, at least petrologic signatures that Gold believed were indicative of the processes he had in mind. In addition, viable bacteria have been found in many inhospitable places on Earth, around undersea vents, in deep rock fissures, and under ice sheets. The geophysical community as a whole has, however, noted specific biological signatures in most petroleum, decided that the required processes almost certainly do not occur, and opted not to count on or look for nonfossil fuels of this sort.

Folklore . The extreme breadth of Gold’s astronomical concerns is revealed by his membership in commissions of the International Astronomical Union. There is a formal upper limit of three per person. He belonged to five, dealing with physical study of planets and satellites, radio astronomy, science from space, cosmology, and high-energy astrophysics. Like most charismatic scientists, he was accompanied by a small cloud of “Gold stories” and famous quotes. Among those vouched for by more than one source was the belief that “all positive quantities are correlated,” that is, people who are very good at one thing are likely to be pretty good at other things, and also rather healthier and better looking than the general run of humanity. But he also could always see ways to make things better, for instance, improving Olympic swimming records by designing suits in the shape of “the minimum circumscribed porpoise.” Gold maintained an emotional identification with Austria throughout his life, describing Franz Josef as “almost my emperor” and quoting him in the face of difficult decisions in the form, “I will have the matter thought about.”


Gold was interviewed by Spencer Weart, as part of the “Sources for History of Modern Astrophysics” project; transcript available at Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.


With R. J. Pumphrey. “Hearing. I. The Cochlea as a Frequency Analyzer.” Proceedings of the Royal Society, series B, 135 (1948): 462–491. Closely related to the thesis for which he was awarded the Trinity College fellowship.

With Hermann Bondi. “The Steady-State Theory of the Expanding Universe.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 108 (1948): 252–270. The first explication of steady state cosmology. The complementary paper by Fred Hoyle appears in the same volume.

“Rotation and Terrestrial Magnetism.” Nature 163 (1949): 513–515.

With Hermann Bondi. “On the Generation of Magnetism by Fluid Motion.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 110 (1950): 607–611. How astrophysical fluids can carry the currents needed to sustain large-scale magnetic fields.

“The Origin of Cosmic Radio Noise.” In Proceedings, Conference on Dynamics of Ionized Media, University College London, March 1951, edited by R. L. F. Boyd. London, 1951. Radio sources as extragalactic rather than stars in the Milky Way.

“Polarization of Starlight.” Nature 169 (1952): 322. A nonmagnetic mechanism for aligning spinning dust grains with the galactic plane.

“Suggestions for Rocket Astronomy.” In Rocket Research of the Upper Atmosphere. London: Pergamon Press, 1954. Early enthusiasm for science from space.

“Instability of the Earth’s Axis of Rotation.” Nature 175 (1955): 526–529. Major axis shifts as the explanation for changes in continent locations in climate and magnetic zones.

“The Lunar Surface.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 115 (1955): 585–604. Prediction of a significant, possibly dangerous, dust layer based on likely physical processes.

“Turbulence in the Interstellar Gas.” In Gas Dynamics of Cosmic Clouds. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1955. The introduction of magnetohydrodynamic shocks.

“The Arrow of Time.” In Structure and Evolution of the Universe (Proceedings of the Solvay Conference), Institut International de Physique Solvay, University of Brussels, 9–13 June 1958. Brussels: R. Stoops, 1958.

“Motions in the Magnetosphere of the Earth.” Journal of Geophysical Research 64 (1959): 1219–1224. The coining of the name.

With Fred Hoyle. “On the Origin of Solar Flares.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 120 (1960): 89–105. Magnetic fields as the energy source and how the energy is released.

“The Problem of the Abundance of the Hydrogen Molecule.” Memoirs de la Société Royale des Sciences de Liège 20 (1961): 476. The possibility that most interstellar material might be molecular, long before this could be measured.

“The Arrow of Time.” American Journal of Physics 30 (1962): 403–410. The 21st Richtmyer Memorial Lecture for the American Association of Physics Teachers.

With Robert J. Gould and Edwin E. Salpeter. “The Interstellar Abundance of the Hydrogen Molecule: II. Galactic Abundance and Distribution.” Astrophysical Journal 138 (1963): 408–425. How such molecules might form.

“Magnetic Energy Shedding in the Solar Atmosphere.” In AAS-NASA Symposium on the Physics of Solar Flares, edited by Wilmot N. Hess. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Scientific and Technical Information Division, 1964. Coronal heating by magnetic reconnection.

“Rotation of the Planet Mercury.” Nature 206 (1965): 1240–1241. The period is a 2:3 resonance with the orbit, rather than equal to it, which was an Arecibo radar discovery and required analysis, provided here.

“Long Term Stability of the Earth Moon System.” In The Earth-Moon System, edited by B. G. Marsden and A. G. W. Cameron. New York: Plenum Press, 1966. Why major axis shifts do not actually occur.

With Francis Perkins and Edwin E. Salpeter. “Maser Action in Interstellar OH.” Astrophysical Journal 145 (1966): 361–365.

“Radio Method for the Precise Measurement of the Rotation Period of the Earth.” Science, n.s., 157 (1967): 302–304. Suggests the possibility of radio interferometry with phase information preserved by very accurate time keeping.

“Rotating Neutron Stars as the Origin of the Pulsating Radio Sources.” Nature 218 (1968): 731–732. The pulsar model that has been his most cited paper.

With Steven Soter. “Apollo 12 Seismic Signal: Indication of a Deep Layer of Powder.” Science, n.s., 169 (1970): 1071–1075.

With Steven Soter. “Atmospheric Tides and the 4-Day Circulation on Venus.” Icarus 14 (1971): 16–20. An attempt to understand why the atmosphere rotates so much faster than the solid surface, an effect not previously seen anywhere in the solar system.

“The Evidence for the Existence of Other Solar Systems and the Question of Life on Them.” In Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), edited by Carl Sagan. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973.

“The Skylab: Is It Really Necessary?” Ithaca Journal, 11 May 1973.

“The Skylab: Is It Worth the Risk and the Expense?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 30 (February 1974): 4–8. Increasing opposition to manned missions.

With Stanley F. Dermott. “The Rings of Uranus: Theory.” Nature 267 (1977): 590–593. Another sort of resonance, with the Uranian moons.

“Don't Send People into Space Unnecessarily.” New York Times, 28 September 1987.

Power from the Earth: Deep Earth Gas—Energy for the Future. London: Dent, 1987. The possibility of large quantities of methane trapped inside Earth from its formation epoch.

“An Unexplored Habitat for Life in the Universe?” American Scientist 85 (1997): 408–411.


Cole, Simon A. “Which Came First, the Fossil or the Fuel?” Social Studies of Science 26 (1996): 733–766. A well-known paper on Gold’s “abiogenic” theory of oil/gas.

Hoyle, Fred. “A New Model for the Expanding Universe.” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 108 (1948): 372–382. Complements Bondi and Gold’s paper in the same volume.

Kragh, Helge. Cosmology and Controversy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. The definitive study of the rise and fall of steady state cosmology.

Salpeter, Edwin E. “Thomas (Tommy) Gold.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 150, no. 3 (2006): 479–486.

Terzian, Y., and E. M. Bilson, eds. Cosmology and Astrophysics: Essays in Honor of Thomas Gold. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Virginia Trimble

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Thomas Gold

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

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.

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