Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Thomas Gold

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Thomas Gold

Article excerpt

22 MAY 192O * 22 JUNE 2O04

THOMAS GOLD died in Ithaca, New York, on 22 June 2004 from heart complications. He was the J. L. Wetherill Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at Cornell. Like many other Viennese Jewish refugees from Hitler (including his lifelong friend Hermann Bondi, his role model, Max Perutz, and even myself), he had a rather peripatetic youth. After formative years in England (especially Cambridge), he moved to the U.S., for a short while to Harvard and then for forty-five years to Cornell, where he almost single-handedly built up astronomy to its eminent presence. I overlapped with him the whole forty-five years and benefited greatly, including the joy of a few joint papers. Tommy (as he is affectionately called) was nominally a theoretical astrophysicist, but also a great original thinker in many other fields.

His audacious ideas frequently challenged established explanations. He had a vast intuition and worked on subjects as diverse as the theory of hearing, the origin of life, the nature of the lunar surface, the dynamics of planetary rings, interstellar dust, pulsars, and the origin of the universe.

Tommy was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society of London in the U.K. He won our Society's J. F. Lewis Award in 1972, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in 1982. He won some additional honors, which I will not enumerate, but not as many as he deserved-in my opinion. This professional "partial cold shoulder" was presumably due to his working in bewilderingly many fields, his very unorthodox and sometimes argumentative style, and his delight in taking risks. His motto was "In choosing a hypothesis there is no virtue in timidity and no shame in sometimes being wrong." As a consequence I have to divide his scientific output into four categories: (1) theories and predictions that have turned out to be completely correct; (2) those that turned out to be wrong; (3) predictions that many professionals claim were flawed, but I myself consider successful in a deeper sense, e.g., quantitatively overoptimistic but qualitatively correct predictions; and (4) unorthodox ideas in an area so complex that it will take a long time (possibly more than a generation) before we know the true story. I will give at least one example for each category below.

Tommy was born in Vienna on 22 May 1920, the son of Maximillian and Josephine Gold. His father was a successful industrialist, himself unorthodox and competitive, two traits that Tommy clearly inherited. The family moved to Berlin when Tommy was thirteen years old, but since his father was of Jewish heritage, they had to leave as Hitler gained power in Germany and Europe. The family moved to London, and Tommy was sent to a boarding school in Zuoz, Switzerland, which made a significant impact on his life. It was in Zuoz that he learned to ski, a sport in which he excelled for the rest of his life. In 1938 he moved to England, but soon after the second World War started he was interned because of his Austrian citizenship (in spite of his being Jewish) and sent to a camp in Canada as an enemy alien. The Australian government at the time was more original than the British-I myself, with a background similar to Tommy's, was classified as a "friendly enemy alien" and had few restrictions in Australia.

Internment in Canada was unpleasant, but had a bright side for Tommy: He met Hermann Bondi, similar in background and age, but also complementary-Bondi's mathematical brilliance matching Gold's physical and mechanical intuition. Many other young anti-Nazi Austrian and German intellectuals were also interned. One of these, Max Perutz (biography in the June 2004 issue of the Proceedings), organized an informal "university." Previously Tommy had had little interest in science, but this "university" and his later association with Bondi and Hoyle stimulated his love of physics and biology. …

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