Gold, Thomas 1920-2004

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GOLD, Thomas 1920-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born May 22, 1920, in Vienna, Austria; died of complications from heart disease June 22, 2004, in Ithaca, NY. Astrophysicist, educator, and author. Gold was a creative and often controversial scientist best remembered for his "steady-state" theory of the universe and his explanation of pulsars. Born in Austria, he immigrated to England to study at Cambridge University, where he earned a B.A. in 1942, an M.A. in 1945, and, much later in 1969, an Sc.D. It was while at Cambridge in the 1940s that Gold came up with his first controversial theory. Working on his master's thesis in mechanical science, he proposed that the inner ear in humans actually produced its own tone. The theory was widely mocked by biologists, but later Gold was proven correct when hairs in the inner ear were shown to vibrate, causing feedback in the ear's membranes. Another theory, developed in concert with astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi, suggested that matter in the universe was constantly being created and continued to expand forever. This "steady-state" theory, however, is now widely considered supplanted by the Big Bang theory. World War II interrupted Gold's education, and during the war he worked on creating radar systems for the British Navy. Some time after the war, he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in physics from 1948 to 1952, followed by four years as chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal. Gold then spent two years at Harvard University as an astronomy professor before joining the faculty at Cornell University, where he was chair of the department from 1959 to 1968 and director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research from 1959 to 1981. In 1971 he was named John L. Wetherill professor; he also served as vice president of research at the university. Despite his failure with his steady-state theory, Gold was not shy in proposing a new theory to explain the radio wave pulses being detected in the universe. In 1968, he asserted that the radio pulses must be produced by rapidly rotating neutron stars. This explanation was later proven correct, and the stars are now called pulsars. The 1960s were an active time of space exploration, and Gold advised NASA on some aspects of the Moon landings. One of his theories was that the Moon would be covered with dust as a result of repeated asteroid impacts; while nominally correct about this idea the Moon was indeed covered in dust his notion that the dust would be so thick that a lunar landing would be impossible proved erroneous; Gold later emphasized that space exploration would be better left to robotic probes, rather than risking human lives. After retiring from Cornell in 1986, Gold came out with a new idea that received criticism. He suggested that microorganisms known as archaea living deep within the Earth's surface are responsible for creating petroleum, and he felt that the increasing demand for oil as an energy source could be solved if geologist just drilled deeper into the Earth. This idea was the exact opposite of accepted theory, which proposed that archaea were life forms that evolved to survive deep underground, while Gold felt that life forms on the surface had evolved from archaea. He wrote about this theory in his 1999 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere. Other books by Gold include The Nature of Time (1967) and Comments on Apollo 11: Observations of a Remarkable Glazing Phenomenon on the Lunar Surface (1970).



Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2004, p. B17.

New York Times, June 24, 2004, p. A25.

Times (London, England), June 28, 2004, p. 24.

Washington Post, June 24, 2004, p. B6.