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No. 114: Nov-Dec 1997

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Surface life (us!) only a "special case"

T. Gold is again challenging our most cherished ideas about geology and life's domain. In the subject article -- his latest paradigm-shaker -- he first reviews the abundant evidence for the existence of large quantities of primordial hydrocarbons deep within the earth and (probably) many other planets throughout the universe. Associated with these hydrocarbons is a "deep, hot, biosphere." By "deep" Gold means 100 kilometers and more. It is this combination of a deep reservoir of hydrocarbons and life forms (probably mostly bacteria) that can account for (among other things):

  1. The fact that all helium comes from oil and gas wells
  2. The fact that the composition of petroleum is not what one would expect from the decomposition of plants and animals. It is really a mixture of primordial hydrocarbons with some added biochemical by-products; that is, products of that "deep" biosphere.

Since carbonaceous material is now known to be common in the solar system (comets, carbonaceous chondrites, etc.), it is likely that many other planets also possess deep stores of hydrocarbons. In these deep, warm, protected, energyrich "wombs," complex biospheres might readily evolve. In Gold's view, deep biospheres may be the rule and surface life the exception!

Finally, Gold sees life as merely a natural process with no more meaning and purpose than accelerating the breaking of chemical bonds and thereby increasing entropy!

"It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum, but nature doesn't care much for free energy either. All of biology is just a device for degrading energy from chemical sources, and on the surface from the great temperature differential between the hot sun and the cold of space. Perhaps biology is just a branch of thermodynamics, and there is no sudden beginning of life, but a gradual systematic development toward more efficient ways of degrading energy. ...The chemical energy available inside a planetary body is then more likely to have been the first energy source and surface creatures -- like elephants and tigers and people -- which feed indirectly upon solar energy are just a specific adaptation of that life to the strangely favorable circumstances on the surface of our planet."

(Gold, Thomas; "An Unexplored Habitat for Life in the Universe," American Scientist, 85:408, 1997.)

Undiscovered microbial life? Undiscovered microbial life may exist kilometers beneath the surfce. These microbes may be the source of the biological molecules found in the oil shown seeping upwards. Gold believes this oil was originally abiotic.

From Science Frontiers #114, NOV-DEC 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987