Thomas Gold - an astronomer of unconventional ideas

Thomas Gold - an astronomer of unconventional ideas.

Never too far off from controversial ideas and arguments, this astrophysicist and innovator was best known for his unconventional theory of 'steady state' in cosmology and work on pulsars. He died of complications from heart disease on June 22, 2004 in New York. Odyssey pays tribute to Dr Thomas Gold…


Academic highlights

Thomas Gold was born in Vienna, Austria, on May 22, 1920. He received an undergraduate degree from Cambridge University in 1942, before doing research on radar for the British Admiralty. In 1947, he was elected a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he did research on resonance and hearing within the human ear. He received a doctorate from Cambridge in 1969. 


Working as a chief assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Royal Greenwich Observatory he joined as a professor of astronomy at Harvard in 1957. In 1959 he joined Cornell and went on to be its director for radiophysics and space research until 1981. He became a professor emeritus in 1986. 

He was a fellow of Britain's Royal Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States. Dr Gold served as president of the New York Astronomical Society from 1981 to 1986. He received a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985.


Career and contributions

As an astrophysicist, Dr Gold's wide-ranging work included lunar exploration, the origins of oil and the creation of the universe, often in the face of accepted theories. His unconventional ideas were acknowledged but not accepted by his peers.


In 1948, Dr. Gold, with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi, proposed a new theory about the creation of the universe, which they named the steady-state theory of cosmology. They believed that the universe has remained constant and infinite, with a continuous creation of new matter. When scientists subsequently found they could measure microwave radiation still lingering from the Big Bang of creation, the theory was discredited.


Dr. Gold also advised NASA during its Apollo lunar expeditions in the 1960s. As member of the space science panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, he correctly predicted that the moon's surface would be powdery, probably pulverized by legions of strikes by asteroids and comets. 

His paper on pulsars (which are rapidly spinning neutron stars surrounded by a large magnetic field that emit regular pulses of radio waves) published in 1968, is his most popular work. At the time, pulsars had been detected by radio telescopes, but had not been explained.


In the 1980s, Dr. Gold discouraged the use of the space shuttle and other manned space flights, arguing that instruments and unmanned flights could accomplish nearly as much for science. "Failures of unmanned launches (and there will be some) will cost money, but will not risk human lives, nor the prestige of the United States," he wrote in 1987. "Nor will they subject the entire program to years of uncertainty and delay." 


Late in his career, Dr. Gold proposed another unconventional theory about the origins of oil and methane. He claimed that oil and other hydrocarbons are being constantly generated by a microbial process and are not chiefly the result of decaying organic plant matter. In his book "The Deep Hot Biosphere" (1999), he proposed that space programs begin to search for subterranean life, drilling for living microbes on Mars and other planets. He also suggested that drilling deeply on Earth would resolve shortages in energy supply, an idea that has been openly contested by geologists.


Further reading

"A maverick astronomer 

AS Henry Kissinger once observed, the reason academic disputes are so bitter is that the stakes are so low. Whether you regard understanding the origin of the universe as a low-stakes academic question, or as one of the most fundamental and important intellectual problems imaginable, there is no doubting the bitterness of the dispute which embroiled Thomas Gold when, along with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi, he proposed the idea that the universe had existed for ever. 


That was in 1948, when the three of them were keen young astronomers at Cambridge. Dr Gold, like Sir Hermann (as he now is), was an émigré Austrian who had been interned by the British at the beginning of the Second World War. (The two met in an internment camp.) Hoyle was a gritty, no-nonsense Yorkshireman. All three were therefore outside the charmed circle that dominated British academia at the time. Their opponent, by contrast, was an insider. Martin Ryle was a nephew of philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and later became England's Astronomer Royal. He was the leading protagonist of a theory contemptuously dismissed by Hoyle as the "Big Bang". 


The "Steady State" theory put forward by Messrs Gold, Hoyle and Bondi held that the universe is infinite in both space and time, and that its infinity in time goes in both directions. No end, then, and no beginning. It also proposed that whenever and wherever you looked, you would see essentially the same pattern of stars and galaxies. To square that with the observable fact that the universe is expanding, and thus might be expected to get less and less dense as it grows older, the three researchers modestly proposed repealing the law of conservation of matter. New atoms, they hypothesised, were being created continuously to fill up the gaps left as the old ones moved apart."     


Also read: 

Solar sailing 'breaks laws of physics'

The next generation of spacecraft propulsion systems could be dead in the water before they are even launched. A physicist is claiming that solar sailing - the idea of using sunlight to blow spacecraft across the solar system - is at odds with the laws of thermal physics.


Both NASA and the European Space Agency are developing solar sails and, although never tested, the concept is quite simple. A solar sail is essentially a giant mirror that reflects photons of sunlight back in the direction they came from. 


Although photons do not have mass, they are considered to have momentum, so according to the law of conservation of momentum, the photon loses some of its energy to the sail as it bounces off, giving the sail a shove in the opposite direction.


But Thomas Gold from Cornell University in New York says the proponents of solar sailing have forgotten about thermodynamics, the branch of physics governing heat transfer. 


Thomas Gold: 1920--2004

Gold, Hoyle and Bondi revealed their steady-state theory of the universe in two separate papers in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1948. The trio had developed the theory because they could not believe that all the matter in the universe was created at the initial singularity (the big bang). But to account for the fact that the universe is continually expanding, the theory requires that matter is continually created at the rate of a few hydrogen atoms per cubic metre per billion years. The theory initially seemed plausible, but the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 dealt it its first big blow.


Gold again sparked controversy in 1955 when he suggested that the Moon's surface is covered with a fine rock powder. It was not until 1969 that he was vindicated when the Apollo 11 crew brought the first samples of lunar soil back to Earth. Analyses revealed that it is indeed powdery, with each grain covered in a thin metal coating caused by the penetration of the solar wind. Gold also designed the stereo camera that was carried on the lunar surface by the US astronauts.