Thomas Gold was a free-thinking physicist and astrophysicist who refused to bow to consensus. A prime mover in the theories of the steady state universe and the non-biological origin of crude oil, his work was admired by some and shunned by others.
Several of his theories were at first rejected and later discovered to be correct, such as his explanations of pulsars and of sound amplification in the ear. He never took any formal college-level physics courses.
Thomas Gold was born on May 22, 1920 in Austria’s capital city, Vienna into an extremely prosperous family.
His father, Dr. Max Gold, a doctor of law, was CEO of ÖAMG, a large industrial mining and metal corporation. His mother, Josefine Martin, had been a child actress.
Max was born Jewish and Josefine was born Christian. Neither of them practiced their religions and Tommy grew up to be an atheist.
The Golds also had a daughter, Elizabeth, five years older than Tommy.
Berlin: Euclid and How to Fight in the Streets
In 1930 his father became CEO of a large company in Germany’s capital, Berlin. Age 10, Tommy began attending a tough school; violence and attacks by students on students were common. He learned to take care of himself in street fighting, know-how that later saved his life.
Tommy did badly academically at school until his class started learning Euclid’s geometry. This topic grabbed his attention in a way no other schoolwork had ever done; it changed him. He starting trying hard at school, and by the time he left Berlin he was top of his class.
His favorite pastime was reading detective stories. He also began to take an interest in technology, building a radio receiver and a remote control boat.
In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. Max Gold correctly feared persecution and decided to return with his family to Austria.
Education in Switzerland
Tommy was sent to the Lyceum Alpinum Zuoz, a boarding school 11 miles (18 km) from St. Moritz, the famous Swiss alpine resort. He worked hard there and prospered; he was top of his class and become a highly accomplished skier. He was extraordinarily competitive, only pursuing activities in which he could be top dog; he actually quit chess because other students could beat him!
He admired his father very much, and planned to follow in his footsteps to become a high-powered businessman. Nevertheless, he broadened his mind and read science books authored by Arthur Eddington and James Jeans.
Gold completed school in 1937, age 17, and rejoined his family, who were now living in the UK. Thomas hoped to study engineering and entered the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College to read mechanical sciences.
Hitler’s disruption of Gold’s life – and many millions of others – however, had not yet run its full course. In 1939, World War II erupted. Poland, then other countries, such as Holland, Belgium, and France fell in quick succession.
Internment and Scientific Salvation
In May 1940, fearing invasion, the British Government ordered the internment of enemy aliens. Gold and hundreds of other Germans and Austrians, including Hermann Bondi, a young mathematician, were detained and shipped to an internment camp in Canada. Some of the detainees, including Bondi and Gold, set up an informal university to stimulate their intellects. Bondi judged Gold to be weak mathematically, but was in awe of his intuitive ability in the concepts of physics. Gold also began to realize that physics was his vocation.
A year later, Gold, Bondi, and most of the other detainees were released and made a return crossing of the Atlantic. Gold returned to his degree at Cambridge, and Bondi began working in Fred Hoyle’s radar research program for the Royal Navy in Witley, Surrey, 40 miles (60 km) southwest of London.
In June 1942 Gold took his mechanical science exams. Weakness in mathematics combined with the fact that he was now more interested in becoming a physicist than pursuing a career in engineering and business led to poor performance. He was awarded an ordinary degree. Disappointed, he began work as a laborer and lumberjack.
By the year’s end Bondi had persuaded Hoyle that Gold would be an asset in radar research despite his unexceptional degree.
Bondi was right: Gold’s work was innovative and impressive. He quickly rose to take charge of designing new radar devices.
Not everything in the garden was rosy, however. Gold and Bondi shared a cottage on the boundary of an airfield. The wheels of heavily laden bombers just cleared the roof of the cottage at 5 am each day as they took off. Gold learned to sleep through the roar of the engines, but he didn’t learn to sleep through the bomb blasts that shattered the cottage windows on several occasions.
Street Fighting Scientist
When the war ended, Gold was sent to Germany to investigate German radar technology. One night, he and another scientist walking alone on a Berlin street were attacked by a drunken American soldier wielding a bayonet. Tommy’s street fighting skills, learned in his tough Berlin school, saved the scientists from serious injury or death.
The Science of Thomas Gold
The Steady State Universe
Gold and Bondi became great friends with their boss, Fred Hoyle. The three frequently spent their wartime evenings together working on the greatest puzzle of them all: the origin of the universe. These conversations convinced Gold that he should devote his life to science.
In 1948, Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle published papers in support of their conclusion that the universe had existed for ever – the steady state universe.
Gold proposed that the universe is expanding because, very occasionally, a hydrogen atom is created in intergalactic space from nothing. Eventually enough hydrogen accumulates to form a new galaxy.
To account for the rate of expansion of the universe deduced from Edwin Hubble’s red shifts, Hoyle explained that hydrogen creation must be:
“about one atom per century in a volume equal to the Empire State Building.”
Although their idea sounded unusual, the three scientists believed it was more credible than the alternative idea, that the whole universe was created instantly from nothing via, as Hoyle memorably described it, ‘a Big Bang.’
The steady state universe theory brought the names of all three scientists to the attention of other scientists and the public.
Big Bang Theory Prevails
Two decades later, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, announced by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1965, led most astrophysicists to favor the Big Bang model. Bondi, Gold, and Hoyle found ingenious ways to explain how the microwave background could be produced in a steady state universe, but they failed to convince most astrophysicists.
How your Ears Capture Sound
The war ended in 1945, but Gold continued naval research work until 1947, returning to Cambridge to build the world’s largest magnetron to generate microwave frequencies for radar systems.
In Cambridge, Gold teamed up with Richard Pumphrey, a zoologist. Pumphrey had been a senior radar researcher during the war, when he had formed a high opinion of Gold’s problem-solving skills.
Pumphrey was interested in the hearing mechanism of mammals. He obtained funding for Gold to work in this field. The pair carried out some fascinating work, resulting in Gold publishing a thesis in 1948 of sufficient quality to obtain a fellowship at Trinity College. The fellowship was much more prestigious than a PhD, so Gold never bothered to get one. He never took any formal university courses in physics.
In two papers, one coauthored with Pumphrey, Gold described his discovery that the cochlea amplifies sound by generating resonance through a positive feedback mechanism, gaining electrical energy from the animal itself.
Gold explained that this was the only credible mechanism for our ears to discriminate between different frequencies of sound. His feedback theory was either attacked or ignored until the 1970s, when it was discovered to be correct.
Should Gold have won the Nobel Prize?
In 1961 Georg von Békésy was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for his discoveries of the physical mechanism of stimulation within the cochlea.”
Békésy’s Nobel Prize winning work was actually wrong; Gold had already described the mechanism correctly, but was rewarded with a fellowship at Cambridge rather than a Nobel Prize.
In 1950 the scientific consensus was that radio sources in space were dark stars within the Milky Way. Thomas Gold disagreed. In 1951 he wrote a paper entitled The Origin of Cosmic Radio Noise for a conference in London. In it he predicted the existence of pulsing radio sources that had never been observed.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish announced the discovery of pulsing radio sources early in 1968. Their regular pulsing behavior was so perplexing that they were interpreted as possibly signals from aliens. Frank Drake, a pacesetter in the search for alien life, coined the word pulsars to describe them.
In 1969, by which time he had been head of astronomy at Cornell University for almost a decade, Gold requested permission to speak at the first academic conference on pulsars on May 20/21 in New York. However, his pulsar paper was rejected on the basis that it would encourage other ‘crazy’ suggestions.
Gold immediately submitted his paper to Nature, which published it on May 25, just five days after he sent it. Following the lines of argument he had used in 1951, he argued that pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars – the whole star completing a rotation on a timescale of seconds or fractions of a second. Gold said the combination of high rotation speed and intense magnetic field would push plasma in the neutron star’s magnetosphere to speeds that were significant fractions of the speed of light, leading to the regular radio pulses.
His ‘crazy’ idea turned out to be correct.
In 1959, by now a professor at Harvard, Gold was studying magnetic fields in space. He coined the term ‘magnetosphere’ to describe the region above the ionosphere where ionized gases up to 10 earth radii from our planet are controlled by Earth’s own magnetic field.
NASA and Moon Dust
Starting in the 1950s, Gold worked as a consultant to NASA. His contributions included:
In 1955 Gold predicted a dust layer on the moon caused by its ongoing bombardment by solar system debris, the powerful radiation bombardment from the sun, and the huge daily temperature swings. Gold said the dust explained the moon’s relatively low reflectivity of light.
At first he expressed concerns about astronauts landing in the dust – he claimed the press misrepresented him with claims astronauts would sink – Gold theorized that their boots would sink only 3 cm, or just over an inch, into the dust. His theory was derided by other scientists, including his use of the term ‘moon dust.’
In fact, Gold was correct about the consistency of the moon’s ‘soil’ or regolith, which turned out to be powdery. He noted that “in one area as they walked along, (the astronauts) sank in between five and eight inches.”
He lost all respect for NASA’s geologists at this time. In Gold’s opinion they ignored his ideas about the moon’s surface, wrongly trained the first astronauts on sharp volcanic rocks rather than the powdery environment Gold had predicted, and failed to give him credit for his correct prediction of the moon’s powdery surface.
Gold designed a stereo camera, the Apollo Lunar Surface Closeup Camera, used on Apollos 11, 12, and 14.
Critic of NASA
Gold believed unmanned space missions should be favored over manned missions, because they could gather more scientific data at much lower risk and cost. NASA threatened Gold that he would lose funding if he testified against their case for the Space Shuttle. Nevertheless, Gold testified and soon his funding was indeed withdrawn. NASA also dropped him from various scientific committees he sat on.
Given the Space Shuttle’s history, there is a strong case that Gold was correct in his opposition to the project.
One of Gold’s most controversial proposals was that fossil fuels – the decay products of life from long ago – are actually primordial in origin. He believed they existed when Earth formed in the early days of the solar system and have slowly seeped nearer to our planet’s surface from the upper mantle. He came up with his theory when he became aware that meteorites contain hydrocarbons. He acknowledged that some hydrocarbons on Earth are produced by decay of dead things, but believed most are primordial.
Gold first began work on this theory in the 1950s: Fred Hoyle wrote about Gold’s theories in Frontiers of Astronomy in 1955. The Russian geologist Alexandrovich Kudryavtsev had already proposed, in 1951, that Earth’s hydrocarbons could be of non-biological origin, although Gold was unaware of this.
The current scientific consensus is that fossil fuels are primarily of biological origin, although there is still room for Gold’s view ultimately to be proved correct.
Gold was unfortunate not to win a Nobel Prize. Some of the awards he did receive were:
1972: American Philosophical Society J. F. Lewis Award
1979: Alexander von Humboldt Prize
1985: Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal for Geophysics
Some Personal Details and the End
In 1947, age 27, Gold married Merle Eleanor Tuberg, an American theoretical astronomer, whose doctoral advisor had been Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and who had come to Cambridge on a postdoctoral scholarship.
As a wedding present, Gold’s wealthy father bought them a house in Cambridge. The couple had three daughters: Lindy, Lucy, and Tanya.
In the fall of 1956, the family moved to the USA, where Gold enjoyed a sabbatical semester at Cornell University, in Ithica, New York. He soon accepted an offer of a radio astronomy professorship at Harvard, moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In summer 1959, Cornell tempted him to return and lead its then embryonic department of astronomy. He resigned from Harvard, and no further offers could then entice him to leave Cornell.
Born in 1920 an Austrian, in 1947 he became a British citizen; and in 1964 an American citizen.
A year after Gold and his first wife divorced in 1971 he married his secretary, Carvel Lee Beyer; they had one child – Lauren.
Gold suffered a heart attack in 1985 and retired from Cornell the following year, age 66. He continued working, mainly on his abiogenic theory of petroleum. He also had more time to pursue his hobby of constructing wooden furniture – he was a highly skilled carpenter.
Thomas Gold died age 84 of heart failure on June 22, 2004 in Ithica, New York. He was buried in Ithica’s Pleasant Grove Cemetery.
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The Nature of Pulsars
Nature, Vol. 218, pp. 731-2, 1968
Thomas Gold 22 May 1920 – 22 June 2004
Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 2006 52, 117-135, published 1 December 2006
Geoffrey Burbidge & Margaret Burbidge
Thomas Gold 1920-2004
National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, Vol. 88
Edwin E. Salpeter
Thomas Gold 22 May 1920 – 22 June 2004
Proc Am Philos Soc Vol. 150, No. 3, pp. 355-359, September 2006