Press Release

Thomas Gold, Cornell astronomer and brilliant scientific gadfly, dies at 84

By SpaceRef Editor
June 22, 2004
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Thomas “Tommy” Gold, a brilliant and controversial figure in 20th century science and professor emeritus of astronomy at Cornell University, died June 22 at Cayuga Medical Center, Ithaca, N.Y., after a long battle with heart disease. He was 84 years of age.

Gold’s reputation as a Renaissance man was surpassed only by his
penchant for unconventional theories — from the origin of the
universe to the source of petroleum. Few scientists ever attempt what
Gold made a career of, staking their reputations on ideas that
radically challenge the methods and assumptions of an entire

Said Joseph Veverka, chairman of Cornell’s Department of Astronomy
and a longtime colleague: “Tommy will be remembered fondly by all of
us for his incisive and provocative ideas, for his sincere dedication
to his colleagues, as well as for his wide-ranging contributions to
physics and astronomy extending over such varied topics as the
steady-state theory of the universe, pulsars, the lunar regolith and
the geochemistry of the Earth’s mantle.”

Famous for stirring up conflict and controversy, Gold was variously
described as a “gadfly,” a “maverick,” and a “world-class
contrarian.” Gold, however, saw his departures from conventional
wisdom as simply doing his job as a scientist. “I don’t enjoy my role
as a heretic,” he once told an ABC News reporter. “It’s annoying.”

Indeed, despite the intense opposition they often encountered, many
of Gold’s most outrageous — and passionately held — ideas had a
curious habit of turning out to be right. For example, in 1946 as a
graduate student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Gold became
intrigued by a problem that was perplexing auditory physiologists at
the time: Why is the human ear so good at discriminating between
different musical notes? Prevailing thought held that the structures
of the ear were too weak and flabby to resonate and that it was the
brain — not the ear — that was responsible for detecting the pitch
of a note. Gold disagreed and designed an elegant experiment to prove
his theory that the ear was indeed capable of resonating.

His research was largely ignored until nearly 30 years later, when
physiologists, armed with more refined tools, began to uncover
evidence for the existence of natural amplifiers: tiny hair cells
that provide feedback to vibrating membranes in the ear, enabling
them to resonate. Another of Gold’s ideas that encountered initial
resistance was his 1967 theory about the nature of pulsars, objects
in deep space that produce regularly pulsing radio waves. Gold’s
explanation, that pulsars are neutron stars emitting radio waves as
they spin, was considered so implausible that he was not even allowed
to defend it at a conference. However, the discovery of a pulsar in
the Crab Nebula led to the theory’s universal acceptance.

“After that, I was never going to compromise with other people’s
opinions again,” Gold said of the pulsar debate. “Just know the

He was right again in 1955 when, as one of the commanding lunar
researchers of the era, he suggested that the moon’s surface was
covered with a fine rock powder, a view opposed by many of his
scientific colleagues. He was not vindicated until the first moon
landing in 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew brought the first sample of
lunar soil back to Earth. Gold was one of the 110 scientists in the
United States and abroad to receive the soil for analysis, and the
researchers concluded that the soil on the lunar surface is indeed
powdery. Its darkness, they said, is explained by a very thin coating
of metal on each individual grain, caused by the penetration of the
solar wind. (Gold played an important role in Apollo 11 in another
respect: He designed the stereo camera carried on the lunar surface
by the astronauts.)

Not all of Gold’s unconventional ideas withstood the test of time.
Most famously, his “steady-state” theory, for years considered by
many cosmologists a possible alternative to the “big-bang” theory of
the origin of the universe, is now widely regarded as a brilliant
mistake. Gold developed the idea of a steady-state universe that has
no beginning or end and in which matter is constantly being created,
with fellow astrophysicists Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi while a
graduate student at Cambridge.

The debate still is raging on one of Gold’s last, and most widely
controversial, ideas: that oil and natural gas are formed not from
decaying organic matter, as most scientists believe, but from
geologic processes and continually well up to the surface from deep

The presence of organic molecules in all petroleum deposits has long
been taken as evidence for the biological origin of petroleum. Gold
argued instead in his 1999 book The Deep Hot Biosphere that the
organic molecules come from subterranean microbes that feed on
petroleum deep in the Earth’s crust. Gold’s vision of a supply of oil
and gas that is essentially inexhaustible drew intense criticism from
petroleum geologists.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1920, Gold received his secondary
education in Switzerland and went to England shortly before World War
II to study at Cambridge University, where he received his bachelor’s
and master’s degrees. While at Cambridge, Gold spent a year in a
British internment camp as a suspected enemy alien. He later worked
on the development of naval radar for the British Admiralty.

Gold did not receive his doctorate from Cambridge until 1969, 10
years after he was hired by Cornell from Harvard University, where he
was professor of astronomy. At Cornell he chaired the astronomy
department and was director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space
Research. Later he became assistant vice president for research.
After his retirement from Cornell in 1987, he continued to publish
and conduct research.

“Gold epitomized Cornell’s openness to offbeat geniuses,” wrote Keay
Davidson in a 1999 biography of the late Carl Sagan, another Cornell
scientist famous for his controversial theories. Indeed, Gold was
responsible for bringing Sagan to Cornell in 1968 after the popular
astronomer had been denied tenure by Harvard.

Gold was a notoriously energetic figure on Cornell’s campus, refusing
to take elevators and frequently startling his colleagues by leaping
up stairs two at a time. His program of exercise included
water-skiing, climbing and even tightrope walking. He brought this
same boundless enthusiasm to his scientific research, once becoming
so excited by a sample of sludge from an oil well that he analyzed it
on the spot in a friend’s kitchen, using ordinary household materials.

Gold received many professional honors during his career, including
election to the National Academy of Sciences, and fellowships in the
Royal Society (the British scientific academy) and the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also served on the President’s
Science Advisory Committee.

He is survived by his second wife, Carvel (Beyer) Gold of Ithaca, and
by the couple’s daughter, Lauren Gold of West Palm Beach, Fla., as
well as by three daughters from his first marriage to Merle Eleanor
Tuberg: Lindy Bryant of Philadelphia, Lucy Gold of Ithaca and Tanya
Vanasse of Carmel, N.Y., and by six grandchildren.


The web version of this release, with accompanying photo, may be
found at

SpaceRef staff editor.