Sometimes scientists are quiet and sometimes they are mavericks exhibiting unconventional methodologies and spouting wild hypotheses. Sometimes the hypotheses are correct. Sometimes they stir great controversies and debates. Such was the life of Thomas Gold. He worked with the refinement of radar for the British; studied auditory phenomena of the ear, fought for the steady state cosmological theory, irritated NASA, and rocked geologists by refuting the origin of natural gas and oil.
The science maverick who challenged establishment thinking - and quite often turned out to be right
June 25th 2004
The science maverick who challenged establishment thinking - and quite often turned out to be right
June 25th 2004
Professor Thomas "Tommy" Gold, who has died aged 84, was the initiator, the pragmatist and the persuader among the trio of young Cambridge scientists who turned cosmology upside down in the 1950s by proposing their controversial and comforting "steady state" hypothesis of the universe. This held centre stage for several years, with Fred Hoyle as its underpinning cosmological philosopher, Hermann Bondi in mathematical support, and Tommy Gold as its extrovert propagandist.
Gold, some years younger than Hoyle, was the natural athlete of the trio, both academically and physically. He could leap easily from engineering to physiology, from physiology to cosmology and on to almost any other speciality. Closed academic cliques feared him. Throughout his life he would dive into new territory to open up problems unseen by others - in biophysics, astrophysics, space engineering, or geophysics.
Controversy followed him everywhere. Possessing profound scientific intuition and open-minded rigour, he usually ended up challenging the cherished assumptions of others and, to the discomfiture of the scientific establishment, often found them wanting. His stature and influence were international.
The "steady state" trio were regarded as mavericks in the 1950s although, among other things, Bondi later became chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. As a group they first worked together on Admiralty radar research in 1942. Before this, however, Gold had met and befriended Bondi in the internment camps in Britain and Canada where both had ended up - with many other highly expert and loyal academic refugees from Hitler - as "enemy aliens" during the 1940 panic about fifth columnists.
When internment came, Gold was studying engineering at Trinity College Cambridge, while Bondi was doing mathematics and physics. Both came from Vienna. Gold's athletic physique matched his academic agility. He was a good climber and an expert skier (as probably befits anyone who came to Cambridge via education at Zuoz College, Switzerland), but naturally practical and highly gifted in other kinds of sport. He was therefore exactly the kind of well set up, handsome young man who, at Cambridge, was able to live life to the full.
Internment hit him hard. He was enjoying himself and well on his way to his tripos. But a darker reason for distress was that, with difficulty, he had accepted that his whole academic future lay, not in his homeland Austria, nor in Germany, but in Britain or the United States. To be locked up by the hand that seemed to be protecting him was unexpected and disconcerting. However, like many who were swept indiscriminately into camps, he believed that the mistake would soon be rectified.
In the event this took over 15 months and turned out to be a wearing and dispiriting process. But on the first night of internment, in a bare army barracks in Bury St Edmunds, he met Hermann Bondi, his fellow Austrian and Trinity student. They had not met before, even though their parents had known each other in Vienna. Their friendship changed their lives.
In the camps Bondi kept spirits up by giving ad-hoc lectures on various aspects of mathematics, and Gold soon realised that his own mathematics were unimpressive. At first infuriated by Bondi's natural skills - and his ability to dismiss Gold's hard-worked and mountainous calculations at a glance by spotting errors of scale - Gold grappled seriously with his limitations and won.
His personal philosophy was that intelligence is not specific. If you are very good at one thing, he would say, then you can be very good at everything else. Like the rest of Gold's life, this triumph over mathematics demonstrated that, in his case, the philosophy was true.
Released from internment, he took his degree and, at the request of Hoyle and Bondi and with (eventual) official approval, joined them in secret Admiralty research into problems of radar ground clutter. In the way of wartime boffins, they worked as a group, generally in remote locations, and largely fending for themselves.
For two years they shared a farm cottage near Dunsfold, Surrey, where Gold naturally took command of practical things, like finding a daily and cooking. Hoyle visited during the week and the radar work was demanding. But off-duty hours were dominated by intense and wide-ranging scientific discussion.
Gold emerged from the cold comfort of this extended wartime seminar aware of a host of new problems in astrophysics and cosmology and much better equipped to investigate them. It turned out that the electron dynamics of the magnetron, at the heart of radar, has similarities to the dynamics of stellar accretion. Hence it related to the theory of matter dispersed throughout space, to gravitational accretion and to hypotheses put forward before the war by Hoyle and Raymond Lyttleton. But it was Gold who first suggested that, whatever the turbulence and violence of galaxies or stellar systems, the energy balance of the universe would remain stable if matter were being continuously created and destroyed in equal amounts.
It was many years before this comforting and rather God-like idea succumbed to the Big Bang, although the steady-state theory was still reverberating gently in 1980, when Cornell University held a world level symposium in Gold's honour, the contributions to which were later published as a collective festschrift.
In the introduction to the book, Professor Edwin Saltpeter, who was studying electrodynamics at Cambridge in the late 1940s, recalls that at this time Gold had switched from the Cavendish Laboratory to the Medical Research Council's physiology laboratory, where he was working on a resonance hypothesis for human hearing.
Gold's approach to research was awe inspiring, says Saltpeter. It somehow managed to combine three incompatible ingredients: willingness to question any basic principle; the application of an engineer's ability to analyse complex systems; and an interest in detailed evidence even if it were not quantitative. "Are servomechanisms generally important in physiology?" Gold asked. "Were Beethoven's musicality and his particular kind of deafness related to the small change from a sharply resonant amplifier to an oscillator?" It is now recognised that feedback mechanisms play an important role and, although Tommy Gold's papers are seldom read, physiologists pay more attention to such mechanisms than they did. They may owe far more to Gold's two years of research than they realise.
In the 1950s, Gold switched back to astronomy, becoming chief assistant at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, where he raised a host of uncomfortable questions about stellar dynamics and produced a complex mathematical model, which became known as the "Gold-Hoyle hot universe".
Although superseded, this is still highly relevant to some aspects of modern x-ray astronomy. Yet, even though highly productive, Gold felt limited and out of place in the narrow and introspective academic confines of Britain. He therefore sought wider horizons. In 1956, he was offered and took the chair of astronomy at Harvard and never looked back.
He made an extraordinary series of contributions across the spectrum of planetary and astronomical sciences, being swept on to various US national committees and becoming a much sought-after NASA consultant. In 1959, he took the directorship of a new centre for radio-physics and space research at Cornell University, a context within which his extrovert originality had great freedom and where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming emeritus in 1981.
One of the most dramatic demonstrations of his genius was the speed and rigour with which, in 1968-69, he showed that the "pulsars", just discovered by the radio astronomers Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell, working under Sir Martin Ryle in Cambridge, must contain rotating neutron stars. This revealed huge new vistas of possibility, for if neutron stars exist in a galaxy, then, as Dennis Sciama later wrote, it is only a short step to accepting that black holes also exist. Gold opened the door for Hawking.
He also generated many controversies. In the 60s, on the run-up to the manned space programme and a possible lunar landing, there was much confused debate about the nature of the surface of the moon. Was it hard rock or was there a deep layer of fine dust? If the moon lander and its astronauts had to cope with dust layers that were metres thick, then designers needed to know, and know quickly.
By making use of evidence from microimpacts, moon cratering, electrostatic fields, and various other tools, Gold made a prediction the astronaut's boots would sink in no more than three centimetres. Within the range of possibilities, this turned out to be very close to the truth. But his critical and popular approach had infuriated other experts. He spoke and wrote about "moon dust" instead of "the lunar regolith", and quickly came under attack for being a centimetre or two wrong.
Then, in the late 70s and early 80s, when the world was taking serious stock of its energy resources, Gold pointed out that some old, deep and theoretically exhausted gas boreholes were still producing methane at a low but constant rate. Isotopic dating suggested that a large proportion of this gas was very old.
Gold suggested that we might be seeing primeval methane, trapped during the formation of the planet, but continuously rising from the deep interior of the earth. His calculations suggested that the volume might be prodigious and hence of extreme importance. Further, this rising gas could be routed to - and trapped in - major fault structures, and therefore a factor that could both trigger earthquakes and render them predictable.
These hypotheses, cutting directly across the received wisdoms of narrow fields of science in which Gold had no recognised expertise, infuriated some. Small, deep, experimental boreholes, put down in the 80s by the Swedish government to test Gold's deep gas hypothesis, yielded only a small volume of gas, but it seemed to be ancient methane and it continues to flow. Gold later altered his hypothesis to propose a "deep, hot biosphere" of methane-producing organisms and has been proved resoundingly right.
In the 80s and 90s Gold became increasingly disenchanted with the structure, achievements and scientific credibility of NASA. He drew sharp attention to the loss of high quality scientists and engineers, to the incestuous nature of many scientific contracts, to the financial pressures being used to suppress criticism and to the tragic technical mismanagement of some major projects, like the Hubble telescope. He was very unhappy and unable to answer his own question: is it possible that institutional corruption has become so pervasive that NASA can no longer hold together a body of scientists and engineers of the calibre required for their ambitious plans? To be sure, NASA's sails were trimmed. But only time will bring an answer.
Throughout his life, Gold was boisterous, amusing and direct. He was also one of the most entertaining academic speakers of his time, on either side of the Atlantic. Quite apart from his rapier-like critical wit, he was able to keep lay listeners fascinated and delighted by the unexpected mathematical elegance of everyday things, like the number of dimples in a golf ball.
Not surprisingly, he was also a great family man. He married twice: to Merle Tuberg when at Cambridge in 1947, by whom he had three daughters; and to Carvel Beyer in 1972, by whom he had one daughter. Cosmology may be full of eternal question marks, he once said, but life is here and now. That was Tommy Gold.
"Remembering Cornell's Tommy Gold: big thinker, bigger personality"
October 21st, 2004
October 21st, 2004
"And here," said Yervant Terzian, "is a picture of Tommy at a very young age, trying to tell you that you are wrong."
The pictures of Cornell's legendary polymath astronomer Thomas "Tommy" Gold that were flashed on a screen at Barnes Hall on Oct. 13 were part of a more-than-two-hour memorial tribute, both humorous and heartfelt, to Gold, who died on June 22. The anecdotes and remembrances by family, colleagues and friends gave proof to the essential character of Gold: an original and protean thinker, a generous father and a fiercely competitive sportsman.
As Terzian, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences, who was hired by Gold in 1965, noted: "Whatever he undertook, he always did with enthusiasm and confidence." He added, "Tommy was a star, and everybody knew that."
Gold retired in 1987 after nearly three decades on campus, during which time he rebuilt the astronomy department, built the Space Sciences Building and helped establish the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. He also explored a host of research areas, from the instability of the Earth's axis of rotation, dust on the lunar surface and cosmic rays from the sun, to the arrow of time, the nature of pulsars and terrestrial sources of hydrocarbons.
Cornell President Emeritus Dale Corson recalled that he hired Gold in 1959 because "we liked the torrent of ideas that flowed from him." Steven Soter, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said his former mentor and collaborator had "courage combined with genius that allowed him to accomplish so much."
But amid the many stories of accomplishment and legend, there were also reminiscences that were both personal and nostalgic. Two of Gold's daughters, Lauren Gold and Tanya Vanasse, spoke of a father who would at once would lecture them on relativity theory and then teach them to ski, both on water and snow. And two of Gold's oldest colleagues, Sir Hermann Bondi of the University of Cambridge and Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., looked back over six decades to the early years of World War II when Gold had been released by the British from internment as an enemy alien to work for the British Admiralty Signals Establishment designing radar detection systems.
Bondi, like Gold, a native of Vienna who had gone to England in the late 1930s, related how he, Gold and colleague Fred Hoyle (also to become a distinguished astronomer) were working for the British war effort and living in a rented farmhouse in Surrey, outside London. The three collaborated until 1949, and together developed the now disproved steady state theory of the expansion of the universe. Gold, said Bondi, was a "phenomenon."
Dyson met Gold at Cambridge in 1946 when "Tommy" was developing a model of a positive feedback mechanism in the inner ear to explain his theory of hearing, a theory that was for many years soundly rejected. Said Dyson: "It took about 30 years before the audio-physiological community admitted that he was right, and they were wrong."
"Prof. Thomas "Tommy" Gold"
October 20th, 2004
October 20th, 2004
Legendary Cornell professor Thomas "Tommy" Gold was honored by family, friends, and colleagues at the university's Barnes Hall last Wednesday afternoon [13 October 2004].
With an image of a smiling Professor Gold on a large wall screen in the background, Joseph Veverka, chairman of Cornell's Department of Astronomy, introduced the memorial service for Gold as a gathering "to remember and honor a very special person."
Gold, who died at the age of 84 of complications from a heart attack June 22, was called "the Father of Astronomy at Cornell," by Veverka. When Gold arrived at the university from Harvard in 1959, the Cornell Astronomy Department had only one professor. It was Gold who was instrumental in turning the department into the world-class institution it is today. Gold also convinced Cornell to invite another legendary figure in astronomy to join the department faculty in 1968: Carl Sagan.
Gold was well known for his ideas that did not follow the beaten path but were still grounded in solid science. His subjects were also wide-ranging. Though he was not always right in the end, it was the fact that he searched beyond the mainstream that mattered; and when Gold was right, it brought about a new way of thinking and looking at our world.
In the 1940s, Gold studied whether the ear determined the pitch of sounds by either mechanisms in the ear itself or in the brain. Gold decided that it was something in the ear, but physiologists in the field would reject his theory for over 30 years, until medical science had advanced enough to prove Gold right.
Along with his friends the late Fred Hoyle and Sir Hermann Bondi, who came all the way from London for the memorial, Gold developed the Steady State theory of the Universe. This theory said that the Universe had always existed and that new matter was being created for it all the time.
Though the Steady State idea has since been rejected by most scientists in favor of the Big Bang theory of cosmic creation, Gold never totally gave up on the idea and was "not embarrassed at all about his idea of universal origin," said Robert Hefner III. Almost as an aside, Hefner asked if perhaps the recent concept of infinite universes being created by an infinite number of Big Bangs is just a variation on the Steady State theory.
During the 1960s when the United States was preparing to place astronauts on Earth's moon with the Apollo program, the Cornell professor was concerned that Earth's moon was covered in a deep layer of dust that would cause any spacecraft trying to land on that surface to sink. Thankfully, this idea turned out to be wrong: there is a layer of dust across the lunar surface, but it is uniform, averaging only a few inches deep.
One theory that Gold was especially proud of was his idea on the nature of pulsars. When these strange celestial objects were first discovered in 1967, no one was quite sure what was making a steady, regular radio pulse from the vicinity of the Crab Nebula, the site of an ancient supernova, or stellar explosion. Some scientists even speculated the pulses might be artificial in origin.
Gold theorized that they might be the remains of that destroyed sun in the form of a rapidly rotating neutron star. His theory turned out to be right. Cornell astronomer Yervant Terzian went so far as to say that Gold "should have gotten the Nobel Prize for it, but never did."
Gold's daughter, Lauren, who said he was "unlike any of my other friend's dads" when she was growing up, summed up her father and his distinguished career thusly: "My dad wove his own fabric with carefully chosen threads."
Two Thomas Gold papers:
A natural phenomenon that may pose a severe aircraft hazard?
The solar sail and the mirror