CCNet DEBATE, 25 November 1998
ASTROBIOLOGY: IS THIS HOW LIFE REALLY BEGAN?
"Everything that can be invented has already been invented"
Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899,
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
"But what ... is it good for?"
Engineer at the advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968
on the microchip
"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
Pierre Patchet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
"Heavier-than-air flyingmachines are impossible."
Lord Kelvin, president Royal Society 1895.
"As all living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which
lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that the
ordinary succession by generation has never been broken, and that no
cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some
confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length. And as
natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all
corporeal and mental environments will tend to progress towards
Charles Darwin (1859) On the Origin of Species by Means of
Natural Selection: or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the
Struggle for Life
IS THIS HOW LIFE REALLY BEGAN?
From The Times, 25 November 1998
An extraordinary theory about the origins of life is causing
controversy, says Nigel Hawkes
The discovery of the world's oldest oil from rocks three billion years
old was reported by Australian scientists last month. Last week the US
space agency Nasa flew two aircraft into the path of the Leonid meteor
shower in an attempt to discover whether particles from a comet
contained traces of life.
These two unrelated events - one far beneath the surface of the Earth,
the other far above it - are united by an extraordinary theory from one
of the world's most original minds. Thomas Gold, now 78, has been
throwing up provocative ideas for half a century, ever since he
collaborated with Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi on the "steady state
theory" of the Universe.
Though vanquished by the Big Bang, steady state theory has an
honourable place in the history of cosmology. Dr Gold now concedes that
he is "doubtful" it is right - a handsome concession by his standards -
but that it was a path well worth following which led to an
understanding of the origin of the elements.
His track record is impressive. Born in Vienna, he fled Hitler in the
1930s, took his degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, and helped to
develop radar for the Admiralty between 1942 and 1946. His university
career has taken him to Cambridge, Harvard and Cornell, and through
research in zoology, physics, astronomy, radio-physics, space research
and cosmology. He is, says Bondi, one of the outstanding scientists of
In a famous encounter at a Royal Astronomical Society meeting in 1951,
Gold asserted that the radio signals recently detected from space came
from objects far outside our galaxy, a view derided by the
radio-astronomer Martin Ryle. Gold was right, Ryle wrong. Much later,
after the metronomic radio sources known as pulsars were discovered,
Gold guessed they were rotating neutron stars - right again.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all, he made a claim about the mechanism
of hearing, based on his experiments of 1946. For 30 years audiologists
treated this as the meddling of an ignorant outsider until finally they
acknowledged he was right. Freeman Dyson, a physicist whom Gold
volunteered for the experiments, says: "About every five years he
invades a new field of research and proposes an outrageous theory that
arouses intense opposition from experts in the field. He then works
very hard to prove the experts wrong."
None of Gold's theories has raised quite as many hackles as the one he
outlines in his new book, The Deep Hot Biosphere (Copernicus, £19).
Even by Gold's standards, this is a humdinger. It amounts to saying
that the geologists are entirely wrong about the origin of oil and
natural gas, while the biologists are wrong about the origin of life.
Why stir up one hornet's nest when you can stir up two?
The traditional theory of how oil and natural gas came to be in the
Earth's crust is that they are the product of the decay of tiny
creatures. That has implications both for the amounts of these valuable
commodities in the crust, and on where to look for them. According to
this view, hydrocarbons are the product of life.
Gold's view is the opposite: life, he asserts, is the product of
hydrocarbons. As the Earth formed by the coalescence of chunks of
material, which included carbon, it trapped complex hydrocarbons in its
interior, from which they have been seeping upwards ever since. The gas
and oil which the world relies on are, in his view, primordial and
probably without limit.
Furthermore, they have provided nourishment for a subterranean life of
bacteria deep in the crust. Gold says that human beings suffer from
"surface chauvinism" - as creatures who live in the thin envelope
between earth and sky, we can't contemplate the notion that other forms
of life live beneath the crust.
Yet they do. In the past decade, a series of discoveries has shown that
bacteria which have no need of light can survive and flourish in the
interstices of the deep rocks, obtaining their energy by chemical
rather than photosynthetic means. Biologists see these extremophiles,
as they are called, as surface-living creatures which have invaded the
depths, evolving to suit conditions. To Gold, it is the other way
round: the extremophiles evolved first; we are merely a successful
above-ground branch of the life they set in motion.
Recent research has also shown that comets, which can be considered
remnants of the material from which the solar system was built, do
contain organic material, including amino acids, the basic building
blocks of life. That is why Nasa was following the trail of the comet
Tempel-Tuttle, fragments of which burn up in our atmosphere every year
to form the Leonid meteor shower. If the comets contain such materials,
then it is likely that the primitive Earth contained them too.
The obvious way to check Gold's theory was to drill a deep hole -
somewhere geologists would least expect to find oil and gas. The drill
was carried out in oil-poor Sweden, with results that are at best
ambiguous. Near Rättvik, the drill holes reached a depth of 6.7km and
produced about 12 tonnes of crude oil. Was this confirmation or
disproof? To find so much oil where not a drop would be expected was
remarkable. But to the oil industry, 12 tonnes (84 barrels) is barely a
teaspoonful. "They claimed it was diesel oil that had been poured down
the hole," says Gold. "But chemically it was completely different from
diesel oil. We drilled another hole, 11km away, and found the same
Geologists, including those who discovered the three-billion-year-old
oil, remain convinced that oil is biogenic -- the product of life. But
there is a paradox they find hard to explain, and paradoxes, says Gold,
"are merely nature's polite way, sotto voce, of informing us that our
understanding is incomplete or erroneous". The problem is that of
explaining why helium is so often found along with oil and gas, and
never on its own.
Gold believes that the movement of the primordial hydrocarbons through
the crust sweeps up helium, which is produced by radioactive decay in
the rocks, and carries it upwards. Geologists, he says, have no
explanation except to say that helium produced in the crust must be
trapped by the same geological structures that trap oil and gas. If
that were true, there should be some traps where there is helium, but
no oil or gas - none has been found. Gold says: "I have challenged them
at geological meetings and said 'You give me a more plausible theory,
or deny that my theory is right.' They can't."
If Gold is right, his theory has another consequence. In many planets
of the solar system, there should be life below the surface. Finding it
could prove difficult, since drilling into Mars, for example, is still
beyond human ingenuity. But Gold suggests that traces of past life may
be found on the surface of Mars - in such places as the canyon Valles
Marineris, where landslides have exposed material which must once have
been deeply buried.
Gold makes big claims that bear on world affairs, the wealth of nations
and on people's reputations. As a controversialist with 50 years'
experience, he is unrepentant: "I don't think I have anything to
apologise for. I am almost always right."
Copyright 1998, The Times Newspapers
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