Note: This article first appeared in the Ithaca Times for 20 October 2004. Copyright © 2004 Ithaca Times, used by permission.
Legendary Cornell professor Thomas "Tommy" Gold was honored by family, friends, and colleagues at the university's Barnes Hall last Wednesday afternoon [13 October 2004].
With an image of a smiling Professor Gold on a large wall screen in the background, Joseph Veverka, chairman of Cornell's Department of Astronomy, introduced the memorial service for Gold as a gathering "to remember and honor a very special person."
Gold, who died at the age of 84 of complications from a heart attack June 22, was called "the Father of Astronomy at Cornell," by Veverka. When Gold arrived at the university from Harvard in 1959, the Cornell Astronomy Department had only one professor. It was Gold who was instrumental in turning the department into the world-class institution it is today. Gold also convinced Cornell to invite another legendary figure in astronomy to join the department faculty in 1968: Carl Sagan.
Gold was well known for his ideas that did not follow the beaten path but were still grounded in solid science. His subjects were also wide-ranging. Though he was not always right in the end, it was the fact that he searched beyond the mainstream that mattered; and when Gold was right, it brought about a new way of thinking and looking at our world.
In the 1940s, Gold studied whether the ear determined the pitch of sounds by either mechanisms in the ear itself or in the brain. Gold decided that it was something in the ear, but physiologists in the field would reject his theory for over 30 years, until medical science had advanced enough to prove Gold right.
Along with his friends the late Fred Hoyle and Sir Hermann Bondi, who came all the way from London for the memorial, Gold developed the Steady State theory of the Universe. This theory said that the Universe had always existed and that new matter was being created for it all the time.
Though the Steady State idea has since been rejected by most scientists in favor of the Big Bang theory of cosmic creation, Gold never totally gave up on the idea and was "not embarrassed at all about his idea of universal origin," said Robert Hefner III. Almost as an aside, Hefner asked if perhaps the recent concept of infinite universes being created by an infinite number of Big Bangs is just a variation on the Steady State theory.
During the 1960s when the United States was preparing to place astronauts on Earth's moon with the Apollo program, the Cornell professor was concerned that Earth's moon was covered in a deep layer of dust that would cause any spacecraft trying to land on that surface to sink. Thankfully, this idea turned out to be wrong: there is a layer of dust across the lunar surface, but it is uniform, averaging only a few inches deep.
One theory that Gold was especially proud of was his idea on the nature of pulsars. When these strange celestial objects were first discovered in 1967, no one was quite sure what was making a steady, regular radio pulse from the vicinity of the Crab Nebula, the site of an ancient supernova, or stellar explosion. Some scientists even speculated the pulses might be artificial in origin.
Gold theorized that they might be the remains of that destroyed sun in the form of a rapidly rotating neutron star. His theory turned out to be right. Cornell astronomer Yervant Terzian went so far as to say that Gold "should have gotten the Nobel Prize for it, but never did."
Gold's daughter, Lauren, who said he was "unlike any of my other friend's dads" when she was growing up, summed up her father and his distinguished career thusly: "My dad wove his own fabric with carefully chosen threads."
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