June 10, 2014

Pinch book recalls the disputatious Tommy Gold

Trevor Pinch

Scientific progress without discouraging setbacks and ego-driven disputes would be dull stuff – endlessly gratifying, perhaps, for earnest participants, but awfully ho-hum for curious onlookers. And for science historians like Trevor Pinch.

Disputed science is at the heart of the “Golem” series books by Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, and his frequent co-author, British sociologist of science Harry Collins. The book “Golem at Large: What You Should Know About Technology” has just been reprinted by Cambridge University Press in its coveted Classic Canto Series.

“The Golem at Large” covers seven technological controversies (such as the cause of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, whether anti-ballistic Patriot missiles actually stopped any SCUDs in the first Iraq war, and the search for an AIDS cure) debated in courts and hearing rooms, laboratories and newsrooms, and – for one dispute familiar to 1980s Cornellians – in a meteor crater in Sweden.

So, what’s a golem?

“The personality of science is neither that of a chivalrous knight nor pitiless juggernaut,” Trevor Pinch and Harry Collins write. Science, they say, is a golem:

“A golem is a creature of Jewish mythology. It is a humanoid made by man from clay and water, with incantations and spells. It is powerful. It grows a little more powerful everyday. It will follow orders, do your work, and protect you from the ever-threatening enemy. But it is clumsy and dangerous. Without control a golem may destroy its masters with its flailing vigor; it is a lumbering fool who knows neither his own strength not the extent of its clumsiness and ignorance.”

Pinch and Collins say they’re fascinated by instances of bitterly disputed science – even though such cases are rare – because “disputes are representative and illustrative of the roots of knowledge; they show us knowledge in the making.”

Also, in the case of the late Cornell astrophysicist and polymath, Thomas Gold, and his Swedish oil wells, because charismatic, loudly opinionated mavericks are fun to write about.

Their chapter, “The world according to Gold: disputes about the origins of oil,” recounts Gold’s vociferous struggle to prove his abiogenic deep-earth-gas theory about the origin – and present-day bounty, so Gold claimed – of primordial hydrocarbon fuels, deep in the planet, where they’ve been since Day One – no thanks to the decay of biological matter.

Outnumbered by entrenched advocates of fossil-fuel theory and practice, Gold devised the ultimate, indisputable experiment: He persuaded backers, including the Swedish National Power Co., to drill an exploratory well provocatively where petroleum geologists never thought to look.

The first well through the Siljian Ring crater, in the summer of 1987, yielded about 100 liters of oily gunk and megatons of disagreement. Critics said Gold’s mini-gusher was diesel-based drilling mud used to lubricate the rig. When chemical analysis proved otherwise, doubters said prankster roustabouts must have poured crude oil down the well, to play a joke on the Ivy League know-it-all.

A second experimental well again found oil – and Gold was called a fraud and even a swindler. (The drilling company went bankrupt; investors were bereft.) To this day, there’s no agreement about abiogenic hydrocarbons.

Gold died in 2004, never doubting he was right about every hypothesis he ever argued. Pinch and Collins admit: “Whether Gold is right or not we do not know. Certainly most scientists think he is wrong. What is clear, however, is that deciding a case like this, even when the odds are stacked so formidably against the scientific maverick, is rarely straightforward.”