Tommy Gold has died at the age of 84. He was a man with an ego so well developed it allowed him to think whatever he damned well wanted to think, regardless of received opinion, and with an intellect so well developed that this kicking against the pricks was very often interesting and sometimes right. An obituary provided by Cornell, where he spent four decades, can be found here, and below I've pasted the introduction to a Q&A I did with him for Wired a few years ago, very lightly resubbed. The full article is here, and while it was a bugger to transcribe there's echt Gold in it.
I never became a true believer in the abiogenic deep hydrocarbons, but interviewing him was fascinating. There was something a little off-putting about the way that he could deride the whole discipline of geology as fickle and stupid (he thought plate tectonics was obviously silly, as well as traditional theories about fossil fuels); but at the same time there was a tremendous exhilaration to his self assurance.
After finishing the piece, it struck me that I should do Fred Hoyle, too, for a matched set, but he died before I could match my deeds to the thought.
I don't know whether Gold's death was sudden or not. If he was still functioning this spring, I feel sure he would have seen methane on Mars as a vindication of his beliefs, and have been cross that everybody else didn't see it in the same way.
Here's the intro
"Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and helped to crack the genetic code; since then he has worked on biological problems from the nature of consciousness to the function of dreams to the origin of life. And through it all Crick, now 84, has been known to friends as a particularly gifted thrower of parties. Back in 1947, amid the privations of postwar Cambridge, England, two students walked into one of these parties, held in Crick's flat on Trumpington Street, and paused to scan the great-minds-in-formation. Crick was holding court in the middle of the room, surrounded by young women. In the far corner stood a clear-faced, rather stern-looking man. "That's Gold of Gold and Pumphrey," said one of the students, referring to the team then doing groundbreaking research on the workings of the ear. "No, no," his companion replied, "that's Gold of Bondi and Gold," the brilliant pair of mathematicians then rewriting the rules of cosmology. The stern face across the room, picking up on their confusion through a trick in the apartment's acoustics, broke into a smile.
"The eavesdropper, and the Gold on both scientific teams, was the same man: Thomas Gold, a physicist who has enjoyed a career broad enough in its enthusiasms to make even Francis Crick look narrow. Gold has worked in the highest reaches of Big Science -- overseeing the construction and operation of the world's largest radio telescope, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico -- while also excelling at the sort of research that requires nothing more than a pencil, paper, and an idea. He has reimagined the whisperings inside the ear, the universe as a whole, and, most recently, the ground beneath your feet. And he's done so with a profound indifference to the opinions of others. Gold is not just wide-ranging: He's a world-class contrarian. Very few people agree with him on everything, which suggests he's sometimes wrong. But he's also sometimes right. And he's always either interesting or infuriating, depending on where you're coming from.
"In his ninth decade, Gold is championing the idea that the creatures living on or near the surface of the Earth -- plants, people, possums, porpoises, pneumococcus -- are just part of the biological story. In the depths of the Earth's crust, he believes, is a second realm, a bacterial "deep hot biosphere" that is greater in mass than all the creatures living on land and swimming in the seas. Most biologists will tell you that life is something that happens on the Earth's surface, powered by sunlight. Gold counters that most living beings reside deep in the Earth's crust at temperatures well above 100 degrees Celsius, living off methane and other hydrocarbons.
"Presented in full in his 1999 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere, Gold's theory of life below the Earth's surface is an outgrowth of his heretical theories about the origins of oil, coal, and natural gas. In the traditional view these substances are the residues of dead creatures. When organic matter from swamps and seafloors gets buried deep enough in the crust, it goes through chemical changes that distill it into hydrocarbons we can then dig up and burn. Gold believes none of this. He's convinced that the hydrocarbons we use come from chemical stocks that were incorporated into the Earth at its creation.
"Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, Gold has been saying that the Earth is hugely well endowed with these hydrocarbons -- hundreds of times more so than most geologists, or oil companies, or OPEC leaders believe. The general belief in scarcity that drives up gas prices and causes fears of inflation, Gold argues, is a mirage that has served vested interests among oil producers for decades.
"But this is one Gold theory that very few agree with. Conventional petroleum geologists are quite happy with their view that hydrocarbons are created by the burial of organic material to depths where moderate levels of heat and pressure "cook" it into oil and gas, which then migrate through the crust to the sorts of sedimentary structures best suited to trap them. Geochemists argue that the bulk of the world's hydrocarbons couldn't possibly reside in the Earth's mantle, as Gold posits; at that depth, hydrocarbons would react with the mantle, oxidizing into carbon dioxide, a process which, Gold's foes believe, is evident in the belching forth of carbon dioxide from the Earth's volcanoes. As Steve Drury, who reviewed Gold's book for Geological Magazine, puts it, "Any Earth scientist will take a perverse delight in reading the book, because it is entertaining stuff, but even a beginner will see the gaping holes where Gold has deftly avoided the vast bulk of mundane evidence regarding our planet's hydrocarbons."
"If a maverick theory of oil were all there was to the Tommy Gold story, he could easily be dismissed as a crank. But he is an enormously respected physicist. When the first radio astronomers started seeing radio sources in the sky, they thought they were unusual stars; from the early 1950s onward, Gold championed the idea that they were actually distant galaxies, and after a long and acrimonious dispute, he was shown to be right. Later, in the 1960s, a new sort of radio source was detected in the skies, one that flashed on and off regularly. Gold rushed into print with the idea that these pulsars were astrophysical oddities called neutron stars, the existence of which had been predicted in the 1930s but had never been seen. Many of his colleagues thought the idea outrageous. It was right on the money.
"But he isn't always right. In the 1940s, early in his career, Gold developed the idea of a "steady-state universe" with Herman Bondi and Fred Hoyle, when the three of them left their wartime jobs in the British Admiralty and made their way back to Cambridge. (Bondi and Gold, both Viennese, had met as refugees, sleeping on the concrete floor of a British internment camp before their mathematical talents were pressed into service on naval radar programs.) The hypothesis has now been almost completely rejected in favor of the big bang theory. But for a while the steady-state idea, in which expansion was eternal and creation continuous, was the most satisfying scientific explanation of the universe around. Though cosmologists now think it wrong, few think it stupid.
"Some Gold interventions, however, don't look so impressive in hindsight. His suggestion that the moon might be deeply covered by very fine dust -- an idea he insists was misrepresented by academic enemies -- has been widely dismissed since the Apollo landings. (Gold now thinks the moon, too, may well have a deep biosphere - as may many other bodies in the solar system.) And his ideas about hydrocarbons remain widely disputed.
"But Gold still argues passionately for his "abiogenic" (not biological in origin) theory of oil. In the 1980s he persuaded researchers in Sweden to drill a hole some 6 kilometers deep into solid granite -- a rock that crystallizes out of molten lava deep within the Earth, and thus should not contain any organic remains -- and succeeded in finding some oil. This didn't convince the geology community, which felt that the oil must have gotten into the granite through cracks. But Gold took it as a vindication.
"In the Swedish experiment, he also saw vindication of his related -- and possibly more fruitful -- theory of the deep hot biosphere. One of the arguments that geologists use to point to biological sources for oil is that some oil molecules look very much like molecules found in living cells. But Gold has turned this argument on its head, interpreting the telltale molecules as signs that there is life feeding on the hydrocarbons deep below us, not constituting them. Instead of dead creatures turning into hydrocarbons when buried (the source of the term fossil fuels), Gold says the hydrocarbons are fuel on which creatures buried in the Earth's depths survive.
"Today, Gold sees other evidence of the deep hot biosphere. There's life on the floors of the oceans, making use of the chemicals gushing out of volcanic vents, and there have been bacteria turning up in deep holes all around the world -- in the Columbia River basalts of Washington, in oil wells in the North Sea, in South African gold mines, and in the Swedish drilling program Gold set up. And though most planetary scientists are unconvinced by the claims made in 1996 that a Martian meteorite had fossils in it, thinking about the Mars rock focused people's minds on the possibility that a planet with a lifeless surface need not have a lifeless interior.
"Listening to Gold make his case in his home in Ithaca, New York -- where for 20 years he ran the Cornell Center for Radiophysics and Space Research -- is to hear one of the 20th century's true scientific originals. His voice -- still recognizably Viennese -- is softer than it once was, but his combative spirit is undimmed. He still works on ideas ranging from the cosmological to the geophysical. He still gets a kick out of pointing to other people's mistakes. And he's still convinced, perhaps now more than ever, that he's discovered one of the great secrets of life."
Update, June 29th: A couple of interesting obits from The Guardian (by Anthony Tucker, who is himself dead, which is weird) and from The Independent, a must-read because it's by Hermann Bondi himself.