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August 10, 2004
I need to take a moment to remember two extraordinary scientists: Francis Crick and Thomas Gold. Both distinguished themselves by being willing not to care about what other people thought of them and their work, which is a useful spice for the stew as long as you don't add the whole jar.
Of the two, Gold was the harder for his colleagues to take. He worked in a variety of fields in a way that is hardly ever seen in modern science. Along the way, he had some spectacular misfires, but you have to be doing spectacular work to have those at all. And his successes (in things as diverse as pulsars and the bones of the inner ear) were impossible to deny. He may yet be proven right about his final provocation, the idea that geological hydrocarbons are, for the most part, just that: geological and not biogenic. He expanded this idea to the propose the "deep, hot biosphere" which both generates methane and adds biogenic signatures to inorganic petroleum, and that part, at least, is looking more correct every year.
Cosmology, physiology, astronomy, geology - I don't think we're going to see his like again. To be honest, there are many people who will hope we don't. Gold was not inhibited about pointing out the failings, as he saw them, of fellow researchers, and there were many who saved up ammunition to pay him back in kind. I don't think science could function well with a population made out exclusively of Tommy Golds. But it would function even more poorly without any at all.
Francis Crick, the more famous of the two, probably seemed to the public to have dropped out of sight for the last fifty years after the DNA discovery. But molecular biologists know how important he was in the years after that first proposal, helping to work out the RNA code and other fundamental issues. Later on he turned to even harder areas, such as the physiological nature of consciousness and memory. No one person is going to solve those, and Crick didn't. But he took some fine swings at them, and he'll be missed.
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