“A species of Methanobacterium, which produces methane, and was found in samples from a buried coal bed 2 km below the Pacific Ocean floor off the coast of Japan.”
Mostly dead is slightly alive
by Jennifer Frazer / January 23, 2019
“Last month, the Deep Carbon Observatory announced an astounding fact: the mass of the microbes living beneath Earth’s surface amounts to 15 to 23 billion tons of carbon, a sum some 245 to 385 times greater than the carbon mass of all humans. That’s amazing. It wasn’t so long ago we weren’t even sure life at depth was possible. But buried in the press release was a detail I found much more surprising and interesting than the mass of subterranean life: its age. Back in the late 1920s, a scientist named Charles Lipman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, began to suspect there were bacteria in rocks. Not fossil bacteria. Alive bacteria. He had been contemplating the fact that bacteria in his laboratory could be reanimated after 40 years in dry soil in sealed bottles. If they could survive four decades, was there really any limit?
“An ecosystem discovered 2.8 kilometers underground in the Mponeng Gold Mine near Johannesburg two years ago has been shown to comprise only a single species of microbe, existing on energy from radioactivity, completely independent of the Sun.”
Coal seemed like a rock ripe for testing, made as it is from swamp muck. He began crushing lumps of coal to see if he could get anything to grow from the dust. He did. When placed in solutions of coal dust and sterile water, in two to three weeks he began to see what looked like bacteria. When placed in solutions enriched with bacteria chow called peptone, it took as little as five hours. Intriguingly, he found that a rehydration period of at least a few days in liquid was essential for revivification. If the crushed coal was wetted but immediately placed on food-infused gelatin-like agar in a Petri dish, nothing grew. He had, of course, included controls and taken precautions to ensure no contaminants caused the growth. His draconian cleaning and sterilization procedure for the pre-crushed lumps involved scrubbing, soaking, baking, and/or pressurizing the lumps of coal for hours or days prior to pulverization. In fact, he found that heating the sample for hours at 160°C never managed to kill the bacteria inside the coal. If anything, it only seemed to encourage them. The longer they were baked – up to an incredible 50 hours – the better they seemed to grow when the coal was subsequently crushed (If his results were genuine, they may not be altogether surprising given both the conditions that create coal and the effects of heat shock proteins).
“A nematode (eukaryote) in a biofilm of microorganisms from Kopanang gold mine in South Africa, lives 1.4 km below the surface.”
Lipman did not believe that the bacteria he coaxed from coal were alive in the sense that the bacteria in your gut are alive. Rather, he believed that during the process of forming coal, the bacteria had dried up and entered suspended animation. “The microorganisms found in coal are actually survivors, imprisoned in the coal at the time it was formed, from material which originally was probably very rich in microorganisms since it was peat-like in nature,” he wrote in the Journal of Bacteriology. “It is my view that here and there scattered through the masses of the coal measures an occasional spore or some similarly resistant resting stage of a microorganism has survived the vicissitudes of time and circumstance and retained its living character, its power to develop into a vegetative form, and its power to multiply when conditions are rendered propitious for it.” This dessicated condition we now call anhydrobiosis, and it is in such a state that organisms like water bears can withstand the vacuum of space and bombardment with radiation. Lipman’s coal came from Wales and Pennsylvania, where some was extracted from a depth of 1,800 feet. Pennsylvania coal inspired the name of an entire geologic subperiod — the Pennsylvanian. It is at least 300 million years old.
“3 mo. old culture of bacteria isolated from crushed Pennsylvania coal. The lump from which these bacteria were isolated had first been baked for 10 hours at 160-170C and then incubated as an uncrushed lump in peptone medium for 39 days, which produced no growth.” [Lipman 1931]
The year was 1931. His colleagues probably thought he was nuts. But from where we sit in 2019, it’s looking increasingly likely that Lipman was not nuts. The world’s oldest living individuals may not be gnarled bristlecone pines or shimmering aspen clones, but tiny microbes locked in rock miles beneath the surface whose goal is to not to grow or reproduce, but simply to cheat death. A growing number of papers published in the last decade indicate that bacteria living – many of them in a hydrated, active state — in sediments, in rocks, and in pockets and fissures buried deep underground are old beyond belief. For instance, in the early 2000s, scientists revealed that the rate at which microbes in aquifers and sediments were breathing was vastly slower than that of microbes at the surface. The biomass turnover rates – the time in which it takes to replace the molecules in a cell – were measured on the order of hundreds to thousands of years. “We do not know whether the microbes of these subsurface environments reproduce at these slow rates of biomass turnover,” wrote Frederick Colwell and Steven D’Hondt in a review called Nature and Extent of the Deep Biosphere in 2013, “or live without dividing for millions to tens of millions of years.”
“The bacterium Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator (the purplish, blue rod-shaped cells straddling orange carbon spheres) survives on hydrogen and was found in a fluid & gas-filled fracture 2.8 km beneath Earth’s surface at a mine near Johannesburg, South Africa.”
A 2017 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found low densities of bacteria (although “low” is still 50-2,000 cells per cubic centimeter) in 5 to 30 million-year-old coal and shale beds located two kilometers beneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan. They were still actively, if extremely slowly, living. Their generation times ranged from months to over 100 years. But this estimate was likely low, the authors conceded. The generation time of E. coli in the lab: 15 to 20 minutes. A 2018 study published in Geobiology of microbes living in deep marine sediments in the South Pacific Gyre concluded that the fitness in such sediments is not about growing but merely surviving. Such microbes’ only food source is whatever happened to be buried with them, the authors concluded. The amount of carbon they consume for maintenance and repair each year is just 2% of the cell’s own carbon content. “Just the fact that intact microbial cells are found in this ancient habitat has remarkable implications concerning the resilience of these organisms,” the authors wrote. In their computer models running multi-million year simulations, after four million years, all cells had ceased growth. They were merely putting whatever resources they could scrounge into keeping the old jalopy running, like the desperate survivors in a Mad Max film. How long can that zero-sum game go on? Will they eventually starve? Will they metamorphose into the dessicated, suspended state that Charles Lipman claimed to discover in Pennsylvania coal? Or does that require the special conditions of coalification?
Evidence is also accumulating that such nutrient-deprived, superannuated bacteria are not “microbial zombies”. On the contrary, numerous studies have found that when deep subsurface microbes are placed in more moderate environments, they quickly revive. Taken together, these findings aren’t as ludicrous as they may seem when you also consider that microbes buried deep beneath Earth’s surface are protected from cosmic radiation – a frequent killer of the preternaturally aged – by thick overburdens of water, sediment, and/or rock (Muons, the form in which cosmic radiation reaches Earth’s surface, can only penetrate tens of meters into rock). Such radiation steadily mutates the DNA of organisms living on Earth’s surface. Panspermia hypotheses that life seeded the universe by hitchhiking inside asteroids have always seemed very tin-foil hat to me. But these findings, together with the recent realization that life may have appeared on Earth almost as soon as it was possible, force me to at least reconsider. Although space is vast, life is insistent. To sum up, Earth’s crust appears to be simply lousy with idling, ancient bacteria parked in power-save mode, ready at nearly a moment’s notice to throw the gearshift into drive. But what a life! Eons spent entombed in a dark, airless, silent matrix, barely eating, barely breathing, barely moving, barely living. But not dead. Not dead. If Charles Lipman was right, there are also bacterial cells inside our planet that began life 50 million years before dinosaurs evolved that could begin dividing again tomorrow.”
– Bradley, James A., Jan P. Amend, and Douglas E. LaRowe. “Survival of the fewest: Microbial dormancy and maintenance in marine sediments through deep time.” Geobiology (2018).
– Colwell, Frederick S., and Steven D’Hondt. “Nature and extent of the deep biosphere.” Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry 75, no. 1 (2013): 547-574.
– Lipman, Chas B. “Living microörganisms in ancient rocks.” Journal of Bacteriology 22, no. 3 (1931): 183.
– Trembath-Reichert, Elizabeth, Yuki Morono, Akira Ijiri, Tatsuhiko Hoshino, Katherine S. Dawson, Fumio Inagaki, and Victoria J. Orphan. “Methyl-compound use and slow growth characterize microbial life in 2-km-deep subseafloor coal and shale beds.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017): 201707525.
DEEP HOT BIOSPHERE
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA Vol. 89, pp. 6045-6049, July 1992 Microbiology
The deep, hot biosphere
by Thomas Gold / March 13, 1992
“There are strong indications that microbial life is widespread at depth in the crust of the Earth, just as such life has been identified in numerous ocean vents. This life is not dependent on solar energy and photosynthesis for its primary energy supply, and it is essentially independent of the surface circumstances. Its energy supply comes from chemical sources, due to fluids that migrate upward from deeper levels in the Earth. In mass and volume it may be comparable with all surface life. Such microbial life may account for the presence of biological molecules in all carbonaceous materials in the outer crust, and the inference that these materials must have derived from biological deposits accumulated at the surface is therefore not necessarily valid. Subsurface life may be widespread among the planetary bodies of our solar system, since many of them have equally suitable conditions below, while having totally inhospitable surfaces. One may even speculate that such life may be widely disseminated in the universe, since planetary type bodies with similar subsurface conditions may be common as solitary objects in space, as well as in other solar-type systems.
We are familiar with two domains of life on the Earth: the surface of the land and the body of the oceans. Both domains share the same energy source-namely, sunlight, used in the process of photosynthesis in green plants and microorganisms. In this process the molecules of water and of CO2 are dissociated, and the products of this then provide chemical energy that supports all the other forms of life. Most of this energy is made available through the recombination of carbon and hydrogen compounds concentrated in the plants with the oxygen that became distributed into the atmosphere and oceans by the same photosynthetic process. The end product is again largely water and CO2, thereby closing the cycle. This was the general concept about life and the sources of its energy until -12 years ago, when another domain of life was discovered (1). This domain, the “ocean vents“, found first in some small regions of the ocean floor, but now found to be widespread (2), proved to have an energy supply for its life that was totally independent of sunlight and all surface energy sources. There the energy for life was derived from chemical processes, combining fluids-liquids and gasses that came up continuously from cracks in the ocean floor with substances available in the local rocks and in the ocean water.
“Based on the findings of researchers from the Deep Carbon Observatory, the temperature limit for life has been demonstrated to be ~120°C.”
Such sources of chemical energy still exist on the Earth, because the materials here have never been able to reach the condition of the lowest chemical energy. The Earth was formed by the accumulation of solid materials, condensed in a variety of circumstances from a gaseous nebula surrounding the sun. Much of this material had never been hot after its condensation, and it contained substances that would be liquid or gaseous when heated. In the interior of the Earth, heat is liberated by radioactivity, by compression, and by gravitational sorting; and this caused partial liquefaction and gasification. As liquids, gases, and solids make new contacts, chemical processes can take place that represent, in general, an approach to a lower chemical energy condition. Some of the energy so liberated will increase the heating of the locality, and this in turn will liberate more fluids there and so accelerate the processes that release more heat. Hot regions will become hotter, and chemical activity will be further stimulated there. This may contribute to, or account for, the active and hot regions in the Earth’s crust that are so sharply defined. Where such liquids or gases stream up to higher levels into different chemical surroundings, they will continue to represent a chemical disequilibrium and therefore a potential energy source. There will often be circumstances where chemical reactions with surrounding materials might be possible and would release energy, but where the temperature is too low for the activation of the reactions.
This is just the circumstance where biology can successfully draw on chemical energy. The life in the ocean vents is one example of this. There it is bacterial life that provides the first stage in the process of drawing on this form of chemical energy; for example, methane and hydrogen are oxidized to CO2 and water, with oxygen available from local sulfates and metal oxides. Hydrogen sulfide is also frequently present and leads to the production of water and metal sulfides; there may be many other reactions of which we are not yet aware. Of all the forms of life that we now know, bacteria appear to represent the one that can most readily utilize energy from a great variety of chemical sources. How widespread is life based on such internal energy sources of the Earth? Are the ocean vents the sole representatives of this, or do they merely represent the examples that were discovered first? After all, the discovery of these is recent, and we may well expect that other locations that are harder to investigate would have escaped detection so far. Bacteria can live at higher temperatures than any other known organisms; 110’C has been verified, and some biologists consider that the upper temperature limit may be as high as 150’C (providing always that the pressure is sufficient to raise the boiling point of water above this temperature). There can be little doubt that venting of liquids and gases from areas of the Earth’s mantle beneath the crust is not limited to a few cracks in the ocean floor. Indeed fossilized “dead” ocean vents have already been discovered (3), showing that the phenomenon is widespread and occurred in different geologic epochs.
A similar supply of fluids seems to be widespread also in land areas, where it is much harder to investigate, but it has been noted that many areas of basement rocks contain methane and other hydrocarbons. This has been seen in numerous mining and tunneling operations for a long time. Major fault lines have been noted to be high spots of hydrocarbon seepage (4). Hydrocarbons have also been encountered in deep drilling in basement rocks, as in the Soviet superdeep well in the Kola peninsula and in the pilot hole of the German Continental Deep Drilling Project. The large quantities of methane hydrates (methane/water ices) found in many areas of the ocean floor, and thought to contain more methane than all other known methane deposits (5, 6), suggest a widely distributed methane supply from below. In land areas, deep in the rocks, it would be much harder to discover and investigate biological activity than in the ocean vents. The pore spaces in the rocks are quite sufficient to accommodate bacterial life, and the rocks themselves may contain many of the chemicals that can be nutrients together with the ascending fluids. But, of course, there would be no space for larger life forms.
Just as bacterial life in the ocean vents would not have been discovered had the secondary larger life forms not drawn attention to it, so any active bacterial life deep in the solid crust could have gone largely unnoticed. The remains of bacteria in the form of molecules – “hopanoids” (derived from hopanes) – a material coming from bacterial cell walls, have however been found in all of the several hundred samples of oil, coal, and kerogen (distributed carbonaceous material in the crust) examined by Ourisson et al. (7). These authors note the widespread or apparently ubiquitous presence of these molecules in the sedimentary rocks, and they give an estimate of the total quantity as of the order of 1013 or 1014 tons, more than the estimated 1012 tons of organic carbon in all living organisms on or near the surface. They also note the virtually identical pattern of the chromatogram of these molecules in oil and in coal. Further they note that some of the molecules most commonly used to identify the presence of biological material in petroleum, such as pristane and phytane, are not necessarily derived from plant chlorophyll as is commonly believed, but could well be products of the same bacterial cultures as those that gave rise to the hopanoids. The presence of these biomolecules can therefore not be taken to prove a derivation of the bulk substance from surface biological debris. What are the depths to which active bacterial life may have penetrated?
Could bacteria get down into the deep rocks? Would this represent just a minor branch of all the surface biological activity, or could it be comparable with it in the total amount of chemical processing caused by it? How important would such life have been for the chemical evolution of the crust of the Earth? An upper limit of the temperature of 110-150’C would place a limit on the depth of between 5 and 10 km in most areas of the crust. The mere question of access to such depths for bacteria would be no problem. Even just the rate of growth of bacterial colonies along cracks and pore spaces in which the requisite nutrients are available would take them down in a few thousand years-a very small fraction of the time span available. In fact, fluid movements in pore spaces would provide still much faster transport. The tidal pumping of ground water alone would be sufficient to distribute bacteria down to 10 km in less than a thousand years. Probably longer times would have been required to allow for the adaptation to the high temperatures.
The total pore space available in the land areas of the Earth down to 5 km depth can be estimated as 2 x 1022 cm3 (taking 3% porosity as an average value). If material of the density of water fills these pore spaces, then this would represent a mass of 2 x 1016 tons. What fraction of this might be bacterial mass? If it were 1% or 2 x 1014 tons, it would still be equivalent to a layer of the order of 1.5 m thick of living material if spread out over all of the land surface. This would indeed be more than the existing surface flora and fauna. We do not know at present how to make a realistic estimate of the subterranean mass of material now living, but all that can be said is that one must consider it possible that it is comparable to all the living mass at the surface. Together with this consideration would go the consideration of the cumulative amount of chemical activity that could be ascribed to this deep biosphere and with that the importance it may have had for the chemical evolution of the crust, the oceans, and atmosphere and the development of the surface biology.
The remarkable degree of chemical selection leading to concentrated deposits of certain minerals has long been an enigma. How can processes in the crust lead to the production of a nugget of gold or a crystal of galena when the refining process had to concentrate these materials by a factor of more than 1011 from the original elemental mix? How much of the concentrated metal minerals found have so far been explained satisfactorily? What energy sources were available to produce such large local decreases of entropy, and how was the necessary energy applied? Is this not a field where the complexity of carbon chemistry and biology, with their ability to be highly selective and to mediate chemical processes, may have had a much larger share than had previously been thought? It is characteristic, after all, for biology to generate important local decreases of entropy at the expense of energy absorbed and entropy rejected elsewhere.
If there exists this deep, hot biosphere, it will become a central item in the discussion of many, or indeed most, branches of the Earth sciences. How much of the biological imprint of material in the sediments is due to surface life and how much to life at depth? Do the biological molecules of petroleum and coal indicate now merely the additions from the deep biosphere to materials of primordial origin, rather than indicate a biological origin of the bulk of the substances themselves? (Robert Robinson, after studying the composition of natural petroleum, considered this possibility as likely. He wrote, “Actually it cannot be too strongly emphasized that petroleum does not present the composition picture expected from modified biogenic products, and all the arguments from the constituents of ancient oils fit equally well, or better, with the conception of a primordial hydrocarbon mixture to which bioproducts have been added” (8). Although there has been much detailed work since, demonstrating the variety of biological molecules that exist in most petroleum, none of this can make the distinction between the two opposing viewpoints. This work was frequently cited to support the bioorigin theory rather than the bioaddition, as a widespread microbiology at depth was not put under consideration.) Many deductions that are firmly in the geological thinking of the present time may have to be reconsidered, if there is indeed such an abundance of life at depth. One cannot discuss these possibilities without connecting them with the questions of the origin of life.
Photosynthesis is an extremely complex process, which must lie some considerable way down on the path of evolution. Energy sources that were simpler to tap had to sustain life for all the time from its origin to the perfection of the photosynthetic process. Presumably these were chemical energy sources, provided by the substances of the Earth. Now one will want to examine whether these were perhaps the same as the chemical energy sources providing the life in the ocean vents and possibly the bacterial life in the rocks about which we are speculating here. The rocks that have hydrogen, methane, and other fluids percolating upward would seem to be the most favorable locations for the first generation of self-replicating systems (9). Deep in the rocks the temperature, pressure, and chemical surroundings are constant for geologically long periods of time, and, therefore, no rapid response to changing circumstances is needed. Ionizing radiations are low and unchanging. No defense is needed against all the photochemical changes induced by ultraviolet light or even by the broad spectrum of visible sunlight.
Bacteriologists have speculated that, since a large subgroup of archaebacteria – the most primitive and judged to be the most ancient bacteria – are thermophiles, this may indicate that primitive life evolved at such high temperatures in the first place (10). If it did and if the archaebacteria are the earliest forms of bacteria, evolved at some depth in the rocks, they may have spread laterally at depth, and they may have evolved and progressed upwards to survive at lower temperatures nearer the surface. Some combination of lateral spread at depth and spread over the surface with subsequent readaptation to the conditions at depth will have allowed them to populate all the deep areas that provided suitable conditions to support such life.
Of course now, when the surface is replete with bacteria of all kinds, it may be difficult to unravel the evolution in each of the domains. If the deep, hot biosphere of microbial life exists in the rocks as well as at the ocean vents, what would be the consequences? Could we expect to have seen any evidence already? Many reports have been published in recent times describing the discovery of bacteria in deep locations where they were not expected. The most striking example is the discovery deep in the granitic rock of Sweden. While drilling to a depth of 6.7 km in an ancient meteorite impact crater called the Siljan Ring, very large quantities of a fine-grained magnetite were encountered. Magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide, exists normally in the granite in the form of large crystals (-1 mm) and at a low mean concentration. What was found was quite different from this. Grains in the micrometer size range were found in a thick sludge or paste, with a liquid binder that was a light oil. This was seen first at a time when the drilling fluid was water, with only occasional small additions of a plant oil as a lubricant. This sludge contained oil to the complete exclusion of water, and the oil was largely a simple, light, hydrogen-saturated petroleum, completely different from plant oils. (It is worth noting that no sediments of any kind had been encountered in the drilling, only granitic and igneous rock.) The magnetic grains were not only particularly small, but also had a different trace element content from the coarse magnetite grains in the granite.
Neither the magnetite nor the oil had a simple explanation in terms of the material of the formation or of any of the drilling additives. The quantities of this sludge found in this first discovery were not small – 60 kg of it filled a drill pipe to the almost complete exclusion of the water-based drilling fluid. Later a pump pumped up 15 tons of a similar oil, together with about 12 tons of the magnetite (11). Similar oil-magnetite pastes have been reported in several other oil drilling operations, and microorganisms have been identified that mediate the reduction of local ferric iron of the formation to the lesser oxidized magnetite, using the hydrocarbons as the reducing agent (12-14). Later, when oil-based drilling fluid had been in use for several months, it was discovered that this had become loaded with many tons, at least 15 and possibly 30, of this fine-grained magnetite. It became clear that there was a phenomenon that occurred on a large scale and that was a major process in the rocks at a depth of between 5.5 and 6.7 km. It is very difficult to see how concentrations of this material could occur without bacterial action; indeed, samples of it taken from a depth of 4 km or deeper have allowed several strains of previously unknown thermophilic, anaerobic bacteria to be cultured. (U. Szewzyk at the National Bacteriological Laboratory (Stockholm) has cultured several strains of anaerobic, thermophilic bacteria from samples taken below 4000 m in the Gravberg borehole, Siljan Ring, Central Sweden (personal communication). Also K. Pedersen at the Department of Marine Biology of the University of Goteborg reports about deep ground water microbiology (15).) It will therefore be worthwhile to search for the presence of microorganisms in many other deep locations in the rocks where chemical energy is known to be available.
The obvious locations for this are the deep oil or gas wells. Bacterial cultures can be attempted from samples taken with the necessary precautions (maintenance of temperature, pressure, and exclusion of oxygen) and using culturing media similar to the local chemical surroundings at the places of origin. Although it had often been said that the presence of bacteria in oil can be identified by the chemical signs of “biodegradation” of that oil, we believe that this is misleading. Oil showing none of the known signs of biodegradation may still be coming from a region rich in bacterial life, and the oil may still have gained biological molecules from this without, however, having suffered any other changes. The reason for this is that microbial attack at depth is likely to be limited by the availability of oxygen and not by that of hydrocarbons; in that case, it seems to be the general rule that bacteria would first use the light hydrocarbons, the molecules from methane to pentane, before attacking any of the heavier hydrocarbons. If the light hydrocarbons are present in sufficient quantity to exhaust the locally available oxygen sources (iron oxides, sulfates, and perhaps other oxides with sufficiently low oxygen binding energy), then the liquid oils will not suffer any biodegradation. Under these circumstances, which are probably common at depth in petroleum provinces, oil will then commonly exist with additions of biomolecules and yet without any signs of biodegradation. It is the finding of apparently undegraded oil that nevertheless contained biomolecules that had been considered as the most compelling evidence for a biological origin of the oil itself. This consideration would no longer be valid, and a nonbiological origin for the bulk of the terrestrial hydrocarbons,just as for all the abundant hydrocarbons on the other planetary bodies, then seems probable. This is one example where the recognition of the existence of abundant microbial life at depth may change major considerations in geology and geochemistry.
Where we find “biodegraded” oil, it must have been subjected to conditions of greater availability of oxygen and lesser availability of the hydrocarbon gases; presumably, this occurs generally nearer the surface where atmospheric oxygen is available in ground water and where the concentration of the light hydrocarbons is low, as these are gases at the low ambient pressure. It may be that we shall find a simple general rule to apply: that microbial life exists in all the locations where microbes can survive, that would mean all the locations that have a chemical energy supply and that are at a temperature below the maximum one to which microbes can adapt. There would be no locations on the Earth that have been protected from “infection” for the long periods of geologic time. Chemical energy must be available, but it must not be liberated spontaneously without the intervention of the organisms. That means we have to be concerned with regions in which the chemical processes that can release energy would not run spontaneously; the temperature must be below the activation temperature for the reactions, or a set of reactions must be involved that give out energy on completion, but that require intermediate steps that absorb energy. Research on the deep microbial life would allow one to judge the extent of it on the Earth, and with that one can expect to gain an insight into the extent to which microbial activity has contributed to the chemical evolution of the crust and its various mineral deposits. Prospecting techniques for minerals and for petroleum may be improved. The derivation of petroleum is a subject of great economic importance, and new information may profoundly influence the prospecting techniques and the estimates of the quantities of petroleum and natural gas that remain to be discovered.
The other planetary bodies in our solar system do not have favorable circumstances for surface life. The numerous bodies that have solid surfaces all have conditions of atmospheric pressure and temperature unfavorable for the presence of liquid water. Mars, deemed the least unfavorable in this respect, has been investigated (by the Viking landers), and no indications of any biological activity have been found. With this, it seemed that there was little or no chance of finding any other life in the solar system. With the possibility of subsurface life, the outlook is quite different. Many planetary bodies will have temperature and pressure regimes in their interiors that would allow liquid water to exist. Hydrocarbons clearly are plentiful not only on all the gaseous major planets but also on the solid bodies (the large satellites, numerous asteroids, the planet Pluto, comets and meteorites); and there is every reason to believe that hydrocarbon compounds were incorporated in all of the planetary bodies at their formation. The circumstances in the interior of most of the solid planetary bodies will not be too different from those at a depth of a few kilometers in the Earth. The depth at which similar pressures and temperatures will be reached will be deeper, as the bodies are smaller than the Earth, but this fact itself does not constitute any handicap for microbial life. If in fact such life originated at depth in the Earth, there are at least 10 other planetary bodies in our solar system that would have had a similar chance for originating microbial life.
Could the space program ever discover this? Is there a possibility of finding life of an independent origin on some of the other planetary bodies? We shall have to see whether microorganisms exist at depths on the moon, on Mars, in the asteroids, and in the satellites of the major planets. Such investigations may become central to that great question of the origin of life, and with that they may become a central subject in future space programs. There is a chance that an independent origin could indeed be identified by a number of criteria: the discovery of opposite chiral asymmetries (50-50 chance in case of an independent origin, while the observation of the same chirality in just one other case would be uninformative); a different choice of basic molecules, or any of the criteria that have been used to show that all terrestrial life has one common origin. (Incidentally, as has often been discussed, this does not imply that there has been only one occurrence leading to an origin of life: if there had been several, the most successful would have supplanted all others, and after that there would be no possibility for a fresh start in competition with evolved biology). It is difficult to foresee at the present time that the space program could proceed to the sophistication and power to perform very deep drilling operations on distant planets. However, there are other options. Deep rifts, such as the Valley Marinera on Mars, expose terrain that was at one time several kilometers below the surface. Samples from there, from the massive landslides in that valley, could be returned to Earth and analyzed for chemical evidence that living materials have existed there in the past.
Similarly, one may sample lunar craters that have exposed deep materials fairly late in the lunar history or deep rifts and young craters on any of the other solid planetary bodies. Since we recognize that even the seemingly most inhospitable bodies may harbor life, care would now be necessary to avoid contamination by terrestrial organisms. Manned expeditions, whatever other difficulties there might be with them, can certainly not be kept sterile and would therefore spoil such researches for all future times. Only very clean unmanned space vehicles going to planetary bodies that have not previously been visited by contaminated vehicles would qualify to bring back meaningful samples of a biology that resembles that of the Earth. If life was restricted to the proximity of the surface of planetary bodies, then “panspermia,” the transport of living material through space over astronomical distances, would be very improbable, as such living material would have to remain viable in a dormant form for very long times; in most of the suggested forms of panspermia, it would not be protected sufficiently well against the cumulative effects of the cosmic rays. Meteoritic impacts could well have exploded large chunks of rock from one planet, and such chunks may have escaped complete vaporization and excessive heating both during expulsion from one body and accretion on another. But unless the living organisms were deep inside of a rock, so as to be shielded by many meters of solids from the cosmic ray bombardment of space, there would be little chance of transferring functional living materials.
Panspermia becomes a much more realistic possibility if there is abundant life at depth in the planetary bodies. There would have been a vastly greater number of opportunities for a transfer between planets in earlier epochs, when the rates of bombardment were much higher than they are now. Meteorites are being collected at the present time that are thought to have derived from Mars (16) and indeed are found to contain carbonaceous material. Can one find traces of biological substances in them? The surface life on the Earth, based on photosynthesis for its overall energy supply, may be just one strange branch of life, an adaptation specific to a planet that happened to have such favorable circumstances on its surface as would occur only very rarely: a favorable atmosphere, a suitable distance from an illuminating star, a mix of water and rock surface, etc. The deep, chemically supplied life, however, may be very common in the universe.
Astronomical considerations make it seem probable that planetary-sized, cold bodies have formed in many locations from the materials of molecular clouds, even in the absence of a central star, and such objects may be widespread and common in our and in other galaxies. It is therefore a possibility that they mostly support this or similar forms of life. Panspermia not only over interplanetary but over interstellar distances would then be a possibility, and it would take the form of the distribution from one body carrying active living forms for indefinite periods of time and in a protected environment to another body capable of supporting similar life. There is one further consideration that needs to be mentioned: the upper temperature limit of bacterial life may well be in the region of 120-1500C. But the availability of chemical energy sources will go down to much greater depths and much higher temperatures. Many chemical mixtures will not spontaneously run down to chemical equilibrium until temperatures more in the neighborhood of a 10000C are reached. Therefore, underneath the type of biosphere that we have discussed here, there will generally lie a large domain that is too hot for the bacterial life we know, but that is nevertheless capable of supporting other systematic chemical processing systems that can mediate those energy reactions. Could there be such higher temperature systems that act in a way similar to life, even if we may not identify them as life? Perhaps their chemistry would not be based on carbon, like the life forms we know; the element silicon comes to mind as an element that can also form molecules of some complexity and frequently with a higher temperature stability than similar carbon-based molecules. Perhaps there are chemical systems that lack some of the properties we use in our present definition of life.
Self-replication is a property possessed by simple crystal growth: it is only when self-replication is associated with an adaptive capability that the complex forms develop that we identify as life. In the case of unfamiliar circumstances and materials, we may fail to recognize these properties. There is a lot of distance between plain crystallography and life. It is the bridging of this distance that forms the central piece of the theories of the origin of life. Should we perhaps look at this deeper, hotter domain to find the clues? This is a region where the conditions have remained constant for the longest periods and where the chemical energy sources have perhaps been most plentiful. Thermodynamics teaches us that a high degree of organization can develop only where there is a supply of energy, but we do not yet understand whether the availability of energy will itself promote the formation of such organized systems. Cairns-Smith (17), writing about the origin of life, has pointed out that, once self-replicating adaptive systems have formed, they may well adapt gradually and change to a totally different chemistry. The chemistry of life we now know need not be the one associated with its essential origin. Thus if a higher temperature life (or pre-life) exists, based on a different chemistry, it may still have an evolutionary relationship with ours, and one cannot presume to know in which sense such an evolution may have taken place.”
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Fuel’s Paradise / 07.01.00
“Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, helping to crack the genetic code; since then he has worked on biological problems from the nature of consciousness to the function of dreams to the origin of life. And through it all Crick, now 84, has been known to friends as a particularly gifted thrower of parties. Back in 1947, amid the privations of postwar Cambridge, England, two students walked into one of these parties, held in Crick’s flat on Trumpington Street, and paused to scan the crowd. Crick was holding court in the middle of the room, surrounded by young women; other great-minds-in-formation were located around. In the far corner stood a clear-faced, rather stern-looking man. “That’s Gold of Gold and Pumphrey,” said one of the students, referring to the team then doing groundbreaking research on the workings of the ear. “No, no,” his companion replied, “that’s Gold of Bondi and Gold,” the brilliant pair of mathematicians then rewriting the rules of cosmology. The stern face across the room, picking up on their confusion through a trick in the apartment’s acoustics, broke into a smile. The eavesdropper, and the Gold on both scientific teams, was the same man: Thomas Gold, a physicist who has enjoyed a career broad enough in its enthusiasms to make even Francis Crick look narrow.
Gold has worked in the highest reaches of Big Science – overseeing the construction and operation of the world’s largest radio telescope, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico – while also excelling at the sort of research that requires nothing more than a pencil, paper, and an idea. He has reimagined the whisperings inside the ear, the universe as a whole, and, most recently, the ground beneath your feet. And he’s done so with a profound indifference to the opinions of others. Gold is not just wide-ranging: He’s a world-class contrarian. Very few people agree with him on everything, which suggests he’s sometimes wrong. But he’s also sometimes right. And he’s always either interesting or infuriating, depending on where you’re coming from. In his nineties, Gold is championing the idea that the creatures living on or near the surface of the Earth – plants, people, possums, porpoises, pneumonia bacilli – are just part of the biological story. In the depths of the Earth’s crust, he believes, is a second realm, a bacterial “deep hot biosphere” that is greater in mass than all the creatures living on land and swimming in the seas. Most biologists will tell you that life is something that happens on the Earth’s surface, powered by sunlight. Gold counters that most living beings reside deep in the Earth’s crust at temperatures well above 100 degrees Celsius, living off methane and other hydrocarbons.
Presented in full in his 1999 book, The Deep Hot Biosphere, Gold’s theory of life below the Earth’s surface is an outgrowth of his heretical theories about the origins of oil, coal, and natural gas. In the traditional view, of course, these substances are the residues of dead creatures. When organic matter from swamps and seafloors gets buried deep enough in the crust, it goes through chemical changes that distill it into hydrocarbons we can then dig up and burn. Gold believes none of this. He’s convinced that the hydrocarbons we use come from chemical stocks that were incorporated into the Earth at its creation. Since the oil crisis of the 1970s, Gold has been saying that the Earth is hugely well endowed with these hydrocarbons – hundreds of times more so than most geologists, or oil companies, or OPEC leaders believe. The general belief in scarcity that drives up gas prices and causes fears of inflation, Gold argues, is a mirage that has served vested interests among oil producers for decades. But this is one Gold theory that very few agree with. Conventional petroleum geologists hold that hydrocarbons are created by the burial of organic material to depths where moderate levels of heat and pressure “cook” it into oil and gas, which then migrate through the crust to the sorts of sedimentary structures best suited to trap them. Geochemists argue that the bulk of the world’s hydrocarbons couldn’t possibly reside in the Earth’s mantle, as Gold posits; at that depth, hydrocarbons would react with the mantle, oxidizing into carbon dioxide, a process which, Gold’s foes believe, is evident in the belching forth of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s volcanoes. As Steve Drury, who reviewed Gold’s book for Geological Magazine, puts it, “Any Earth scientist will take a perverse delight in reading the book, because it is entertaining stuff, but even a beginner will see the gaping holes where Gold has deftly avoided the vast bulk of mundane evidence regarding our planet’s hydrocarbons.”
If a maverick theory of oil were all there was to the Tommy Gold story, he could easily be dismissed as a crank. But he is an enormously respected physicist. When the first radio astronomers started seeing radio sources in the sky, they thought they were unusual stars; from the early 1950s onward, Gold championed the idea that they were actually distant galaxies, and after a long and acrimonious dispute, he was shown to be right. Later, in the 1960s, a new sort of radio source was detected in the skies, one that flashed on and off regularly. Gold rushed into print with the idea that these pulsars were astrophysical oddities called neutron stars, the existence of which had been predicted in the 1930s but had never been seen. Many of his colleagues thought the idea outrageous. It was right on the money. But he isn’t always right. In the 1940s, early in his career, Gold developed the idea of a “steady-state universe” with Herman Bondi and Fred Hoyle, when the three of them left their wartime jobs in the British Admiralty and made their way back to Cambridge. (Bondi and Gold, both Viennese, had met as refugees, sleeping on the concrete floor of a British internment camp before their mathematical talents were pressed into service on naval radar programs.) The hypothesis has now been almost completely rejected in favor of the big bang theory. But for a while the steady-state idea, in which expansion was eternal and creation continuous, was the most satisfying scientific explanation of the universe around. Cosmologists now think it wrong, though few think it stupid. Some Gold interventions, however, don’t look so impressive in hindsight. His suggestion that the moon might be deeply covered by very fine dust – an idea he insists was misrepresented by academic enemies – has been widely dismissed since the Apollo landings. (Gold now thinks the moon, too, may well have a deep biosphere – as may many other bodies in the solar system.) And his ideas about hydrocarbons remain widely disputed.
But Gold still argues passionately for his “abiogenic” (not biological in origin) theory of oil. In the 1980s he persuaded researchers in Sweden to drill a hole some 6 kilometers deep into solid granite – a rock that crystallizes out of molten lava deep within the Earth, and thus should not contain any organic remains – and succeeded in finding some oil. This didn’t convince the geology community, which felt that the oil must have gotten into the granite through cracks. But Gold took it as a vindication. In the Swedish experiment, he also saw vindication of his related – and possibly more fruitful – theory of the deep hot biosphere. One of the arguments that geologists use to point to biological sources for oil is that some oil molecules look very much like molecules found in living cells. But Gold has turned this argument on its head, interpreting the telltale molecules as signs that there is life feeding on the hydrocarbons deep below us, not constituting them. Instead of dead creatures turning into hydrocarbons when buried (the source of the term fossil fuels), Gold says the hydrocarbons are fuel on which creatures buried in the Earth’s depths survive. Today, Gold sees other evidence of the deep hot biosphere. There’s life on the floors of the oceans, making use of the chemicals gushing out of volcanic vents, and there have been bacteria turning up in deep holes all around the world – in the Columbia River basalts of Washington, in oil wells in the North Sea, in South African gold mines, and in the Swedish drilling program Gold set up. And though most planetary scientists are unconvinced by the claims made in 1996 that a Martian meteorite had fossils in it, thinking about the Mars rock focused people’s minds on the possibility that a planet with a lifeless surface need not have a lifeless interior. Listening to Gold make his case in his home in Ithaca, New York – where for 20 years he ran the Cornell Center for Radiophysics and Space Research – is to hear one of the 20th century’s true scientific originals. His voice – still recognizably Viennese – is softer than it once was, but his combative spirit is undimmed. He still works on ideas ranging from the cosmological to the geophysical. He still gets a kick out of pointing to other people’s mistakes. And he’s still convinced, perhaps now more than ever, that he’s discovered one of the great secrets of life.”
Wired: You published your ideas about the deep hot biosphere in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. What evidence since then has confirmed your beliefs?
Gold: A large number of people have found more microbial life in deep boreholes.
W: And in deep caves?
Gold: Yes, that’s important.
W: So the buildup of evidence and interest must be gratifying.
Gold: Oh yes, it’s certainly nice. But what I find a little distressing is that even though I published that article in ’92 – I’d already submitted it to Nature in ’88, but they wouldn’t publish it – a lot of people describe their work as if they had made the discovery of a deep hot biosphere and it had never been thought of before.
W: You saw what you thought was evidence when you drilled in Sweden and found signs of life 6 kilometers down in the form of sludge and tiny grains of the mineral magnetite. What was the significance of that finding?
Gold: Magnetite is a chemically reduced form of iron oxide, which means it has less oxygen bound to the iron than more common iron oxides. The whole story of the deep hot biosphere is that oil coming up from below, without biology, will be food material for microbiology when it gets to a relatively shallow level where the temperature is not too high. For the microbes to use that oil as food when there’s no atmospheric oxygen, they have to find oxygen in the rocks. There is plenty there, but there is not all that much in an easily removable form.
W: But what is easily usable is in common iron oxides – and when that’s used, magnetite gets left behind.
W: In your book you talk about being so excited at finding the sludge that you tried to analyze it yourself in a friend’s kitchen.
Gold: That’s right. I arrived on a Saturday in Mallorca with the sample and I was alone in the apartment. So first of all I looked around in the neighborhood and there was not a single shop open. I knew the sample was oily – I could feel that – so I thought that maybe there would be some nail polish remover to use as a solvent. I looked through all the cupboards for nail polish remover but couldn’t find any. Eventually I decided hot water and kitchen detergent would be my best bet. The sludge was like quite thick putty so I tried to dissolve it – it took a lot of doing. In the end I had a clear liquid, light gray, and I thought it was particulate. The grain size was so small that kitchen paper could serve as a chromatogram – diffusion would take the black stuff some way out through the paper, while the liquid went much farther. In such a case you think first of a metal. So I thought, Well, iron is common – is there a magnet in the house? There were magnetic door latches on the cabinets, so I unscrewed those and put some of my liquid on aluminum foil and immediately it made sharp lines between the poles. So it was most likely magnetite.
W: What first made you think that there might be life at such depths?
Gold: It was in response to the long debate over how helium, which is concentrated in oil, could be associated with petroleum and biological debris. Helium has no affinity chemically with biological stuff. My argument was that the helium must have been swept up from below by petroleum from deep down, and that led me to the whole notion of the deep biosphere.
W: And you believe that the oily depths where you found magnetite represent the environment where life on Earth began?
Gold: Yes. You can only suppose the origin of life in circumstances where there is no direct access to the source of at least one of the components that you require. If you have the common story of the warm pond on the surface, then all of the things that are needed will be accessible to whatever microbes there are. So they will multiply exponentially up to the limit of the food supply. That means that in a flash the whole thing is done and they are all dead. There has to be a process of metering out at least one of the components so it’s impossible to eat up everything at once. The hydrocarbons from the mantle provide that metered supply. If life developed down below, it could later crawl up to the surface and invent photosynthesis.
W: As I understand it, you think that any planetary body that’s warm enough for liquid water at some depth, and that has hydrocarbons in it, will have a deep biosphere. So there could be life inside the moon.
Gold: What we know about the moon is quite remarkable. The astronauts of the Apollo program left behind a gadget that measures molecular weights. There were a few deep earthquakes measured, and in association with those earthquakes there was always a molecular mass of 16 recorded by the instrument. Now the people who don’t know any chemistry then responded saying, Well, that’s oxygen. But it’s no good telling me it was oxygen atoms because an oxygen atom could not go a centimeter through cracks in the rock. What fairly stable molecule have we got that has mass 16? Methane. So it is warm enough for life in the moon. Mars is undoubtedly a better candidate because it’s larger and has more internal heat. Then there are the satellites of the major planets, also Triton, Pluto, Charon, and the larger asteroids that have big black markings on them. Not Venus or Mercury – there the water would disappear altogether. In my first paper on the subject I advised that one should go down the deep valley on Mars and to the landslides that have come off its walls in the hope of finding solid material residue that we have identified as coming from microbial action. The current Mars program is focused on what are taken to be previously wet environments – lake beds and the like. That is complete nonsense.
W: How did you feel when you first heard the claims about ALH 84001, the meteorite from Mars in which some people saw signs of life?
Gold: I think immediately the first information was that there were small grains of magnetite in there, and sulfides, and there was oil in there.
W: What they called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons?
Gold: That’s oil. Sulfides and magnetite were immediately reported, all close together. And there was a calcite cement. All these things are typical of what you find down boreholes. To my mind they have a much stronger case than the one they made for saying this is biological.
W: If meteorites can move material from one planet to another, do you think that life could have moved between the deep biospheres?
Gold: Yes. I also believe there may be a huge number of bodies that are like planets that are not tied to stars. All we know is that we are tied to a star. And we’ve seen a few other stars like ours. But that is no reason for thinking that the formation of planetary bodies needs a star. It’s only because that’s the only place where we’ve been able to look. If you had an Earth-sized body floating by itself through space, we would not have had any chance to observe it. But its deep biosphere could keep ticking. Ticking as it has here for billions of years.
W: So life could spread not just within solar systems but over greater distances?
W: It’s interesting that you still speculate about other planets. Some of your work in this area – I’m thinking about your ideas regarding the surface of the moon – is now seen as having been very wide of the mark.
Gold: I concluded that very fine-grained material seemed likely on the lunar surface. The opposition believed that everything was volcanic – that the moon was enormously volcanic at one time even though now one can’t see the littlest volcano on it. They said the flat plains are just lava fields and flows. They got NASA to train the astronauts in the lava fields near Flagstaff; when the astronauts came back, they said they hadn’t seen any ground that was anything like the area in which they trained. What happened, to my great annoyance, was that the other side wanted to ridicule me before the landing by saying, We think it’s all hard stuff but Gold thinks you’re going to sink out of sight the moment you step onto the surface. It was completely a slander. As I had written, when I step out of a plane in Denver I’m stepping onto a mile of fine granular material – because it all washed out from the mountains – and I don’t sink out of sight. I would not have worked on a camera to go to the moon if I had thought it was not going to work. But it was published that Gold says when they step off the ladder they will sink out of sight. And newspapermen, as you probably know, read other newspapers, and these things tend to propagate.
W: Henry Cooper, in a 1969 New Yorker article about the Apollo missions, quoted you as saying that geologists have no more business studying the moon than studying the sun. You clearly don’t have a very high opinion of geologists.
Gold: That is true. They’re so enormously fashion-conscious. It was very unfashionable to think that the continents had moved. And then from one year to the next it was declared that it was all right, that the continents had moved. And then if you had any difficulty with the details of how the continents had moved, you were a crackpot. They just follow a leader.
W: Wasn’t it by recognizing a mistake widely accepted by geologists that you first got interested in the deep Earth?
Gold: Yes. In the late 1940s I had read in a textbook on geology that at a depth of more than 10 kilometers there can’t be any pore spaces, because the overburden of the rock is so great that it would crush them all out. I discussed this with Fred Hoyle and said that these people evidently don’t understand what a pressure bath is. If there is liquid under pressure in the pore spaces it will keep them open. It’s just as silly as the schoolboy who comes home from school and asks, “How is it that I’m not squashed as flat as a pancake when there’s 14.7 pounds per square inch on my body?” There can be pore spaces any way down you like so long as the pressure of the fluid in the pores is reasonably in balance with the rock pressing down from above.
W: What led you to think the liquids holding open these pores might be hydrocarbons left over from the Earth’s creation?
Gold: Probably reading Arthur Holmes, who had written so many things that were egocentric expressions of opinion. He was the great father of geology – and still is – but I found his work quite shocking.
W: Shocking in what way?
Gold: Whenever he discussed some facts that were inconvenient, he would say that they should not be taken seriously, that it was purely due to chance. He far exceeded his information with the opinions that were mixed in – statements like, “Oil is not found in association with coal except accidentally, and not found in volcanic areas except accidentally.” Look at the arc of Indonesia, from Burma to New Guinea: It’s far more earthquakey than any other place we know. It makes lots of small, deep earthquakes, it’s along exactly that belt that you have volcanoes – and you have petroleum along the whole of the line. “Never found in association with volcanoes except accidentally” – that’s a hell of an accident. So I spent years having these problems with geological texts. And then in the 1970s I had some discussions with King Hubbert, the leading American petroleum geologist, whose word counted as God’s. I remember having lunch with him in Washington and saying, “Well, how can you account for the fact that we have oil-producing regions that are so large, that can go from Turkey to Iran to the Persian Gulf and under the plains of Saudi Arabia and on into the mountains of Oman, and the whole of that stretch is oil?”
W: Why would that be unlikely, given the traditional view of oil forming from organic matter in buried sediments?
Gold: Because the oil is all the same, while the sediments in that region are completely different: different ages, different materials. There’s no sedimentary material that is uniform throughout the region, that has any coherence. And this just never struck him. His response was, “In geology we don’t try and explain things – we just report what we see.” Hubbert’s views changed the wealth of nations. The belief that oil would run out, and that those with a source could always increase the price, caused the early-’70s oil crisis. That, to my mind, is a completely stupid attitude that shifted many billions of dollars away from some countries and toward others.
W: You clearly already had some sort of alternative model in mind.
Gold: I knew something that, to this day, the petroleum geologists in this country don’t seem to know – that astronomical observations had detected large amounts of hydrocarbons on various planetary bodies in our solar system. We didn’t have the very good results that we now have from Titan showing seven different hydrocarbons. But I knew that there were perfectly sound astronomical observations showing hydrocarbons to be common on planetary bodies. So it seemed natural that there should be similar hydrocarbons within the Earth, slowly seeping out. We don’t see a lot of hydrocarbons just lying around on the Earth. Once the atmosphere has a lot of oxygen, then any hydrocarbon gases that come up are quickly turned into CO2.
W: Were there precedents for your idea that deep hydrocarbons are a normal fact of planetary geology?
Gold: In the ’60s, Sir Robert Robinson [a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of Britain’s Royal Society] said that petroleum looks like a primordial hydrocarbon to which biological products have been added.
W: And what was the response?
Gold: The response was that I quoted his remark in many of my papers. But the profession of petroleum geology did not pick it up. Mendeleyev [the Russian chemist who developed the periodic table] in the 1870s had said much the same thing, but Robinson had done a more modern analysis of oil and had come to the same conclusion. And, in fact, the Russians have in the last 20 years done an even more precise analysis that completely proves the point. The fact that Mendeleyev was in favor of a primordial origin of petroleum had a great effect – you see, to most Russians, Mendeleyev was the greatest scientist that Russia ever had.
W: Does it worry you that better international communications mean there’s no longer that opportunity for ideas disregarded in one place to find safe havens elsewhere?
Gold: Yes. In fact, I wrote somewhere during the Cold War that I sometimes wish the Iron Curtain were much taller than it is, so that you could see whether the development of science with no communication was parallel on the two sides. In this case it certainly wasn’t.
W: I suppose it’s understandable that pure scientists might reject a theory just because they don’t like it. But why did oil companies interested in the bottom line not pay attention?
Gold: Because individual petroleum geologists who work for big companies never wanted to admit that they could have done their planning and their prospecting on an entirely wrong basis.
W: Perhaps there was little interest in your idea in the 1980s and ’90s because oil prices stayed low.
Gold: But that made it clear that the geologists’ theory and its predictions were wrong. Maybe they were off by only a little – after all, the price is now rising steeply. But that’s only because of the OPEC cartel, which is held together still by the information that the oil is going to run out. If it’s clear that the fields are refilling, then of course the cartel greatly weakens, and the individual nations will try to outsell the others. So it’s very important economically who is in the right.
W: How much more oil is there in your view of the world than in the view of traditional petroleum geology?
Gold: Oh, a few hundred times more.
W: But not all of it is accessible at the moment?
Gold: It becomes accessible by recharging, and the recharging process I think I completely understand. There’s a stepwise approximation of the pore pressure to the rock pressure – that will always be the case if the stuff is coming up from below. You will not just fill up one reservoir at the top in the shallow levels. It will always be underlaid by another reservoir, and that in turn by another, and so on for a long way down.
W: And by pumping out oil from the highest reservoir you release the pressure on the lower ones, allowing more oil to seep up.
Gold: Yes, the partial seal between the surface reservoir and the one below in some cases appears to break open violently.
W: What’s the evidence for that?
Gold: Many fields have produced several times as much as the initial testing of their magnitude would have indicated. Some geologists frankly agree that fields are refilling themselves – Robert Mahfoud and James Beck, who say fields in the Middle East are refilling, and Jean Whelan, who has observed a site refilling in the Gulf of Mexico – though they won’t concede my theory is correct.
W: Your onetime colleague Carl Sagan used to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What evidence did you have for geologists who found your claims about oil extraordinary?
Gold: In Sweden I produced oil by the ton from 6 kilometers down. Eighty barrels we pumped, perfectly ordinary crude oil, entirely in nonsedimentary rock, in granite. It looked like perfectly good stuff. The Russians have drilled 300 holes in Tatarstan since the Swedish experiments. They give me the credit for making the final determination between the biogenic and abiogenic theory by finding petroleum in the bedrock of Sweden.
W: Presumably the geologists said the oil had come in along cracks in the granite.
Gold: They’d have a hard time persuading me.
W: Isn’t there oil in the shales around the granite?
Gold: But the shales are nowhere deeper than 300 meters. I was down at 6.7 kilometers.
W: A number of physicists of your generation – your friend Hoyle, George Gamow, Luis Alvarez, Freeman Dyson, Francis Crick (a physicist by training) – have gravitated toward big questions about life, its origin, its workings.
Gold: I think that’s what any competent scientist will do in the course of time.
W: But for you, the move from one topic to another seems to have been driven by spotting other people’s errors.
Gold: Yes, that’s true. I was quite good at spotting a serious error, such as when Harold Jeffreys [a geophysicist at Cambridge] gave a particular formula for the damping of the Earth’s free nutation [a slight nodding of the axis of rotation]. I looked at this formula and then I rushed to my friend Bondi and said, “Look, Harold thinks that if I have an object the size of a pea in the middle of the Earth and it has a suitable viscosity, it will cause the observed damping.” I realized immediately it was rubbish. Bondi and I wrote a correction paper, and it took us a year to get that correction paper printed. Because the great Harold Jeffreys was still standing on his hind legs and saying what he wrote was right.
W: In putting forward controversial ideas, does it help to have had the experience of seeing your cosmological theories discarded? Did that experience toughen you up?
Gold: I was always pretty tough. But the pulsar episode shaped my attitude more than anything else. My idea that rotating neutron stars were responsible for pulsars was totally ridiculed at an international conference. I was not allowed to speak from the podium for five minutes in a two-day conference because it was regarded as such a monstrous idea. That was in the spring, and I think by November or December of that year, observations of the pulsar in the Crab Nebula had confirmed every damn thing that I’d said – confirmed that the frequencies of a young pulsar would be higher, confirmed that good places to look would be supernova remnants, and a number of other things. After that, I was never going to compromise with other people’s opinions again: Just know the facts.
W: Don’t people tend to overtrust what they are taught are facts?
Gold: Yes, absolutely. Not only overtrust, but they publish whenever they have a positive result for an accepted theory, and if they have a negative result they suppress it, or it gets suppressed by the referee.
W: So you have to know what to ignore: You have to have what I think Bondi once called a ruthless disregard for the observations.
Gold: I kick myself for not having been firm enough sometimes. Some of my colleagues have, on occasion, wanted me to step down from my high horse, saying maybe there is something to what the others say. I should have resisted that.
W: Searching out error means changing fields quite often, though. If you had been more ambitious about your career, would you have stuck to a single area of research?
Gold: Yes, but that did not attract me – I followed my own interests. And that has been a handicap. The petroleum geologists dislike me, but very few of them have any notion that I’ve worked in other fields – and been also disliked, but found out right, you see. It should give them some pause.”
Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?
“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it… An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.” — Max Planck, autobiography, 1950, p. 33, 97
Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 103-1 12, 1989 Society for Scientific Exploration
New Ideas in Science, by Thomas Gold
Abstract: “The pace of scientific work continues to accelerate, but the question is whether the pace of discovery will continue to accelerate. If we were driving in the wrong direction-in the direction where no new ideas can be accepted-then even if scientific work goes on, the progress would be stifled. This is not to suggest that we are in quite such a disastrous position, but on the other hand, not all is well. New ideas in science are not always right just because they are new. Nor are the old ideas always wrong just because they are old. A critical attitude is clearly required of every scientist. But what is required is to be equally critical to the old ideas as to the new.
Whenever the established ideas are accepted uncritically, but conflicting new evidence is brushed aside and not reported because it does not fit, then that particular science is in deep trouble-and it has happened quite often in the historical past. If we look over the history of science, there are very long periods when the uncritical acceptance of the established ideas was a real hindrance to the pursuit of the new. Our period is not going to be all that different in that respect, I regret to say. I want to discuss this danger and the various tendencies that seem to me to create it, or augment it. I can draw on personal experiences in my 40 years of work on various branches of science and also on many of the great controversies that have occurred in that same period.
I will start very naively by a definition of what a scientist is. He is a person who will judge a matter purely by its scientific merits. His judgment will be unaffected by the evaluation that he makes of the judgment that others would make. He will be unaffected by the historical evaluation of the subject. His judgment will depend only on the evidence as it stands at the present time. The way in which this came about is irrelevant for the scientific judgment; it is what we now know today that should determine his ~ judgment. His judgment is unaffected by the perception of how it will be received by his peers and unaffected by how it will influence his standing, his financial position, his promotion-any of these personal matters. If the evidence appears to him to allow several different interpretations at that time, he will carry each one of those in his mind, and as new evidence comes along, he will submit each new item of evidence to each of the possible interpretations, until a definitive decision can be made. That is my naive definition of a scientist.
I may have reduced the number of those whom you think of as scientists very considerably by that definition. In fact, I may have reduced it to a null class. But, of course, we have to be realistic and realize that people have certain motivations. The motivation of curiosity is an important one, and I hope it is a very important one in most scientists’ minds. But I doubt that there are many scientists to whom the motivation of curiosity about nature would suffice to go through a lifetime of hard struggle to uncover new truths, if they had no other motivation that would drive them along that same path. If there was no question about appealing to one’s peers to be acknowledged, to have a reasonably comfortable existence, and so on, if none of this came into the picture, I doubt that many people would choose a life of science. When the other motivations come into the act, of course the judgment becomes cloudy, becomes different from the ideal one, from the scientific viewpoint, and that is where the main problem lies. What are the motivations? If there are motivations that vary from individual to individual, it would not matter all that much because it would not drive the scientific community as much to some common, and possibly bad, judgment. But if there are motivations that many share, then of course that is another matter; then it may drive the whole scientific community in the field in the wrong direction.
So, we must think: What are the communal judgment-clouding motivations? What is the effect of the sociological setting? Is our present-day organization of scientific work favorable or unfavorable in this respect? Are things getting worse, or are they getting better? That is the kind of thing we would like to know. The pace of scientific work continues to accelerate, but the question is whether the pace of discovery will continue to accelerate. If we were driving in the wrong direction-in the direction where no new ideas can be accepted-then even if scientific work goes on, the progress would be stifled. I am not suggesting that we are in quite such a disastrous position, but on the other hand, I am not going to suggest that all is well. What are the many factors that many people might share that go against the acceptance of scientifically valid new ideas? One obvious factor that has always been with us is the unwillingness to learn new things. Too many people think that what they learned in college or in the few years thereafter is all that there is to be learned in the subject, and after that they are practitioners not having to learn anymore. Of course especially in a period of fairly rapid evolution that is very much the wrong attitude; but unfortunately it is shared by many.
I can give you there an example from my own experience where, when I was still very green and naive, just after the war, I had worked on the theory of hearing: how the inner ear works. As I had just come from wartime radar, I was full of signal processing methods and sophistication and receiver of hearing in those terms. I thought it was very appropriate because it is a very fine scientific instrument that we were discussing, the inner ear. But I had to address myself to an audience of otologists-the doctors and the medical people who deal with hearing-the only ones who were doing any kind of research in this field. The mismatch was obvious; it was completely hopeless. There was no common language, and of course the medical profession just would not learn what it would take to understand the subject. On the other hand, they sure made their judgments about the matter, without having any basis at all. So it just essentially forced me out of the field. (Since writing this, we do. I recently went to a conference on Mechanics of Hearing; NATO advanced workshop, University of Keele (UK), subject: “The Active Chochlea,” July 1988. Also, there are various recent papers on the subject, including one in the Proceedings of the Royal Institution by Dr. David Kemp: “Hearing in Focus.” It is now possible to record a clear, high-frequency noise coming out of people’s ears, with a sensitive external receiver. The ears make clear, clean-pitched noises. They run into self-oscillation, which is clearly the symptom of an ill-controlled active receiver.) The theory of hearing which I proposed then involved an active-not a passive-receiver, one in which positive feedback, not just passive detection is involved. We now have very clear evidence, after these 36 years, that indeed an active receiver is at work, but we still have not got a receptive group of physiologists who deal in this field.’ The medical profession still hasn’t a clue as to why 15 kilocycles should be coming out of somebody’s ears. Thirty-six years is not yet enough to get that learning into the profession.
A motivation which is in a way more serious and more avoidable than the nonlearning one, a motivation that hones out new ideas, is what I brutally call the “herd” instinct. It is an instinct which humans have. It presumably dates back to tribal society. I am sure it has great value in sociological behavior in one way or another, but I think on the whole the “herd instinct” has been a disaster in science. In science what we generally want is diversity – many different avenues need to be pursued. When people pursue the same avenue all together, they tend to shut out other avenues, and they are not always on the right ones. If a large proportion of the scientific community in one field are guided by the herd instinct, then they cannot adopt another viewpoint since they cannot imagine that the whole herd will swing around at the same time. It is merely the logistics of the situation. Even if everybody were willing to change course, nobody individually will be sure that he will not be outside the herd when he does so. Perhaps if they could do it as neatly as a flock of starlings, they would. So this inertia-producing effect is a very serious one. It is not just the herd instinct in the individuals that you have to worry about, but you have to worry about how it is augmented by the way in which science is handled. If support from peers, if moral and financial consequences are at stake, then on the whole staying with the herd is the successful policy for the individual who is dependent on these, but it is not the successful policy for the pursuit of science.
Staying with the herd to many people also has an advantage that they would not run the risk of exposing their ignorance. If one departs from the herd, then one will be asked, one will be charged to explain why one has departed from the herd. One has to be able to offer the detailed justifications, and one’s understanding of the subject will be criticized. If one stays with the herd, then mostly there is no such charge. “Yes, I believe that because doesn’t everybody else believe that?” That is enough justification. It isn’t to me, but it is to very many other people. The sheep in the interior of the herd are well protected from the bite in the ankle by the sheep dog. It is this tendency for herd behavior that is greatly aggravated by the support structure of science in which we believe nowadays. I will read out just one passage here to show that other people than myself have recognized the herd problems: David Michland writes in the Reviews of Astronomy: “I sometimes wonder if the much encouraged and proclaimed interaction among western astronomers leads to a form of mental herd behavior which, if it does not actually put a clamp upon free thinking, insidiously applies the pressure to follow the fashion. This makes the writings of our Soviet colleagues who have partly developed ideas in comparative isolation all the more valuable.”
Yes, I have often wondered whether one should in fact pursue subjects with a big wall between two groups that are working in the same field, so that they absolutely cannot communicate, and see a few years later whether they come even approximately to the same conclusion. It would then give some perspective of how much the herd behavior may have been hurting. But we don’t have that. Even with our Soviet colleagues, unfortunately, we have too much contact to have a display of real independence, to see where it would have led. This question of how the support of science-and I don’t mean only the financial support but also the journals, the judgment of referees, the invitations to conferences, acknowledgements of every kind-how that interacts with the question of herd behavior, is what I will now discuss. It is important to recognize how strong this interaction really is. Suppose that you have a subject in which there is no clear-cut decision to be made between a variety of opinions and therefore no clear-cut decision to be made in which direction you should put money or which direction you should favor for publications, and so on. No doubt opinions would need a multidimensional space to be represented, but I will at the moment just represent them in a one-dimensional situation.
Suppose you have some curve between the extreme of this opinion and the extreme of that opinion. You have some indefinite, statistically quite insignificant distribution of opinions. Now in that situation, suppose that the refereeing procedure has to decide where to put money in research, would say, “We can’t really tell, but surely we shouldn’t take anybody who is out here. Slightly more people believe in this position than in any other, so we will select our speakers at the next conference from this position on the opinion curve, and we will judge to whom to give research funds,” because the referees themselves will of course be included in great numbers in some such curve. “We will select some region there to supply the funds.” And so, a year later what will have happened? You will have combed out some of the people who were out there, and you will have put more people into this region. Each round of decision making has the consequence of essentially taking the initial curve and multiplying it by itself. Now we understand the mathematical consequence of taking a shallow curve and multiplying it by itself a large number of times. What happens? In the mathematical limit it becomes a delta function at the value of the initial peak. What does that mean? If you go for long enough, you will have created the appearance of unanimity. It will look as if you have solved the problem because all agree, and of course you have got absolutely nothing. If no new fact has come to light and the subject has gone along for long enough-this is what happens. And it does happen! I am presenting it in its clearest form, and it is by no means a joke. If many years go by in a field in which no significant new facts come to light, the field sharpens up the opinions and gives the appearance that the problem is solved.
I know this very well in one field, which is that of petroleum derivation, where the case has been argued since the 1880’s. At the present time most people would say the problem is completely solved, though there is absolutely nothing in the factual situation that would indicate a solution. It is also very clear there that the holding-in that has taken place has been an absolute disaster to research. It is now virtually impossible to do any research outside the widely accepted position. If a young man with no scientific standing were to attempt this, however brilliant he might be, he wouldn’t have a hope. I believe that our present way of conducting science is deeply afflicted by this tendency. The peer review system, which we regard as the only fair way we know of to distribute money (I don’t think it is, but it is generally thought to be) is an absolute disaster. It is a completely unstable method. It is completely prone to this tendency; there is no getting out of it. The more reviews you require for a proposal-now the NSF requires seven reviewers for a proposal-the more you require, the more certain it is that you will follow the statistical tendency dictated by this principle. If you had noise in the situation, it would be much better. There used to be in the United States many different agencies, and there was perhaps an odd-ball over here who gave out some money for one agency, and a funny fellow over there for another. This was a noisy situation, and it was not driving quite as hard towards unanimity. But now we have it all streamlined and know exactly to whom we have to go for a particular subject and, of course, it is an absolute disaster.
Why is it thought that the peer review system would work for science? How about trying to make a peer review system work for other forms of endeavor? Suppose we had a national foundation for the arts and every painter had to apply to it to get his canvas and his brushes and his paints. How do you suppose that would work? I can imagine some of the consequences, but better than that, we can look them up in historical examples. If you want to read such, in the book The Experts Speak, you can do that. There is a long list of them that you can read-it makes marvelous reading. Eduard Manet wrote to his colleague Claude Monet, of Renoir: “He has no talent at all, that boy. Tell him to give up painting.” “Rembrandt was regarded as not comparable with an extraordinarily gifted artist, Mr. Ripingill.” William Blake spoke of Titian and the Venetians as “such idiots are not artists.” “Degas regarded Toulouse-Lautrec as merely a painter of a period of no consequence.” One wonders how art would have fared in a peer review system. Or would it be different in music? We can read what was said of Beethoven’s compositions by musicians of his time: “An orgy of vulgar noises” was the verdict of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Mr. Spore, a German violinist and composer. On Tchaikovsky’s appreciation of Brahms, “I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard. It annoys me that this jumping, inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.” But one could go on almost endlessly with such quotations. Music would not have fared any better. So we see that the herd instinct is a tendency in the human makeup, which is itself a severe handicap for science. Instead of combatting it as best we can, we have arranged a method of nurturing science which actually strengthens it enormously-makes it virtually impossible to depart from the herd and continue to have support, continue to have a chance of publication, continue to have all the advantages that one requires to work in a field.
If in a subject there was initially a diversity of opinions, the review system will assure a very short life for that condition, and soon the field will be closed to all but those who are in the center. Once a herd is established, by whatever historical evolution this has come about, it obtains such finn control that it is extremely difficult to do anything about it. And even if it were appreciated that that is the situation, one just doesn’t know how to interfere. Where then is the right to free speech if every journal has to send each article out to a number of people to review, and the bulk of the people are with the herd? Usually with just one-third of the reviewers very negative the paper does not get published. So there is no free speech in that sense that you cannot publish diverse viewpoints. There is also no free speech at conferences because the same is true there. Would all those who have a divergent opinion be able to organize their own conference? Very rarely. We represent perhaps an example here showing that it is possible, but it is pretty rare that one can raise funds to run conferences. Essentially once the herd is established, it will interfere in any one of the activities that one would need to further that science. Would the Dean in a university be willing to promote somebody to tenure who was outside the pack? He can’t, because he has to send out letters to the leading persons in the field-he may inquire from 20 people before he gets permission to appoint somebody to tenure-and how can he get that when the pack is running in another direction than this person? It is absolutely hopeless! So you establish the situation more and more. Once a herd has been established in a subject, it can only be broken by the most crass confrontation with opposing evidence. There is no gentle way that I have ever seen in the history of science where a herd once established has been broken up.
In many subjects such clear evidence is very hard to come by. In the complex subjects, especially I always think of the earth sciences in this respect, there are always different ways of interpreting any one fact; so many complicated things have taken place that any one fact can have three or four interpretations and the crass confrontation is very rare. So then when you have a herd, all the money that you spent on it may be wasted, or worse than that, it may actually serve to cement further the bad situation. So it is very likely that money is often spent in science in a way that is absolutely detrimental to that science. What does the refereeing procedure really look like? How does it really go on? If, for example, an application was made in the early 60’s or late 50’s suggesting that the person wanted to investigate the possibility that the continents are moving around a little, it would have been ruled out absolutely instantly without questions. That was crack-pot stuff, and long been thought dead. Wegener, of course, was an absolute crack-pot, and everybody knew that and you wouldn’t have any chance. Six years later you could not get a paper published that doubted continental drift. The herd had swung around – but it was still a firm and arrogant herd. Shortly after the discovery of pulsars I wished to present an interpretation of what pulsars were, at this first pulsar conference-namely that they were rotating neutron stars. The chief organizer of this conference said to me, “Tommy, if I allow for that crazy an interpretation, there is no limit to what I would have to allow.” I was not allowed 5 minutes of floor time, although I in fact spoke from the floor. A few months later, this same organizer started a paper with the sentence, “It is now generally considered that pulsars are rotating neutron stars.”
I will tell you about a recent application to the Department of Energy by a colleague of mine and myself for some money to investigate the chemistry of hydrocarbons at high pressures and high temperatures in the conditions in which they might be at some depth in the earth. We had the referee’s reports because you are allowed to get them, but not signed. We got one voluntarily from one of the referees, so we know who he was. He wrote, “This proposal must be funded. In science every research project is a risk, but here the risk is negligible because even if the hypothesis is not correct, this research proposal will contribute strongly to fundamental science in petroleum engineering, the thermodynamics of fluids, and geochemistry. If the hypothesis is correct, the Department of Energy will have hit the jackpot beyond its wildest imagination.” And he continued with the detailed questionnaire with top marks in every part: the competence of the proposer, the institution, the test, the facilities, and all that. He gave it top marks on every point. There was a second referee who also gave it top marks for all the questions that are posed on the form. But then the last question is: “Should this proposal be funded?” and he wrote, “No.” And then there was just a single word after that where it said, “If no, why not?” And he wrote down, “Misguided.” It was not funded despite the fact that most of the referees in fact gave it very high marks, due to the “misguided,” and also similar words were used by two or three other referees. No reason given; just “don’t touch it.” It wasn’t the only such that I have submitted over the years now, and they have all been turned down both at NSF and DOE. It is absolutely hopeless to get any money in contravention of the opinions that are so firmly established in the petroleum business now.
That brings me to another problem. If in a subject you have a large number of people because it has economic applications, that immediately aggravates the problem. And, of course, in petroleum related matters there are a huge number of people involved at every step. This means firstly that a lot of mediocrity is brought into the field and overpowers the field by sheer numbers; and it also means that much more commitment to a particular viewpoint has been made by many people. Do you suppose that the petroleum geologist who has been advising Exxon to drill for hundreds of millions of dollars for maybe 30 years, will go to his bosses at Exxon and say, “I am sorry, Sir, but I have been wrong all those years. We have been finding the petroleum, but if we had searched for it in another way, we would have found 10 times as much.” It is very unlikely that they will do that. In fact, even if his methods and his understanding were completely, clearly wrong -even if you had the crassest confrontation in this case-I don’t think that it would be acknowledged. A very small proportion of people would have that stature that they would turn around and say, “All my life I have taught or struggled with these problems on the wrong lines, and now I understand the right thing.” So in this case, the herd is so firmly established that one cannot think of converting it. A quotation from Tolstoy comes to mind: “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth, $it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread buy thread, into the fabric of their lives.”
Another area where it is particularly bad is in the planetary sciences where NASA made great mistakes in the way in which they set up the situation. NASA made the grave mistake not only of working with a peer review system, but one where some of the peers (in fact very influential ones) were the in-house people doing the same line of work. This established a community of planetary scientists now which was completely selected by the leading members of the herd, which was very firmly controlled, and after quite a short time, the slightest departure from the herd was absolutely cut down. Money was not there for anybody who had a slightly diverging viewpoint. The conferences ignored him, and so on. It became completely impossible to do any independent work. For all the money that has been spent, the planetary program will one day be seen to have been extraordinarily poor. The pictures are fine and some of the facts that have been obtained from the planetary exploration with spacecraft-those will stand but not much else. So yes, it is possible to make what is a bad tendency in humans in the first place (for science at least a bad tendency) that much worse with a lack of understanding of how the inward looking effect can be controlled or at least how it should not be augmented by the method of nurturing of science. You may think that what I am saying is that the support for science poses this intrinsic problem, and that if you want to be fair you have to go for an unstable system which doesn’t work. At first it looks like that. So should you go for something that’s fair-makes people reasonably happy-but that doesn’t work? Or should you go for something that is not so obviously regarded as fair but does work? It is a difficult decision to make, but you know there is nothing that says that things that are fair must also be the things that work. The world is just not so benign to us. Life is not that easy.
Is there another way of doing it? I suppose that the best that I can think of is roughly on the lines of what my friend, Arthur Katrowitz proposed at least for major decisions: The “science court” idea is the best one. Where a lot is at stake, where a subject has been driven into an alley, one must set up a science court where the different viewpoints would be heard, would be argued by the protagonists of each one, with carefully prepared work. The different viewpoints could be judged, not by others working in that same field, which would merely take you back to the herd, but would be judged by a group of very knowledgeable and very competent scientists distributed over other fields, but with enough general competence to be able to listen and understand the detailed arguments of the field in question. I would be much happier to have subjects surveyed every now and again by a jury of that kind. It has to be a scientific jury because it would have to understand detailed scientific arguments, but they do not have to be – and should not be – from the field in which the decision is to be made.
That is the avenue which I would advise the NSF and such organizations to pick at this time. I would say that in every field they should set up such a science court to hear all the different opinions on a reasonably regular basis. It is true that you cannot do it for every application that comes along, but it is true that you could do it sufficiently often for major decisions to break, or at least spoil somewhat, the herd system. As it is at the moment, the situation seems not to be understood at all. I have discussed the herd problem with many people in the funding agencies, and found no understanding of that problem at all. I could give you many more examples from my own life of the difficulties of getting subjects funded. At the present time I am struggling with the oil and gas business, and after being turned down very firmly by DOE and NSF, I finally was able to get money from the gas industry itself to do research which is in good progress now. In this area, which is one of the worst because no really significant facts have come to light and everything has been interpreted time and again in the time-honored fashion, and everyone believes they know in detail now how oil and gas come to be where they are. And the fact that we find that oil and gas exist on the other planetary bodies, obviously not due to biology, is completely ignored. They say there was no oil or gas here, and all that happened on the Earth was something that was completely specific to the Earth. Of course, it is a peculiar attitude, but that is the one that is widely accepted.
There is one more point that I should make. When in a subject a general attitude or a viewpoint has become established, then it is very easy to obtain funds to do work in that subject on the basis of what I call “shoehorn science.” I think you will understand what I mean by that. If you make your proposal which says: “I will demonstrate how this fact and that fact, that apparently are difficult to see in the accepted framework, can be figured into that framework,” they are all delighted to give you money. And by the time that has gone on for a long time, so much work of the shoehorn kind has been diligently done to force the facts into the pattern that is preordained, that it then looks to many people as if it all was firmly established. What happens is that they build a superstructure on what may be no foundation – if I may invent a “Confucius say” sort of proverb, “Never judge strength of foundation from size of building.”
In the field of petroleum-geology that is really what has happened. The moment you dare to look at the foundation, you are a scoundrel. I have made people absolutely wild, shaking their fists at me, when I proposed in my talks that there was some uncertainty about the origin of petroleum. One fellow actually wrote a paper that got published, that there must be life on Jupiter because hydrocarbons have been seen on Jupiter. That is my sad story. I believe that we could do something about it, that we could propose that this kind of a situation be understood in high quarters-that we could try and have something in the nature of science courts established, or at any rate some review by independent persons and not by the herd; but as it is at the moment, I feel that we are dealing with a large proportion of science funding very firmly in the wrong hands, and much of it is therefore counterproductive.”
EARTH’s PLASMA CORE