Key concepts: non-biological petroleum, chemosynthetic bacteria, deep hot biosphere, Thomas Gold

Attention Conservation Notice: Geologists have somehow managed to ignore this heretic for thirty years, so why should we be listening to him now? Provokes cognitive dissonance of the first order. Paradigm-rupturing.

Entries in the Viridian Summer Health Warning Contest:

This contest expires very soon: September 1, 01999.

Viridian Individual Projects:

A new Viridian Individual Project by Will Munslow (^^**):
(((Will Munslow remarks: "I was fiddling around with Perl and ripped off some nice scripts that I reworked. A small Viridian Version of Dunno if anyone is interested, but if the amount of information headed to you is as big as I expect, people might enjoy having a different place to display it.")))

*Viridian T-shirts for sale, $15 each We're Shipping the First Ones Out the Door Right Now.

The Deep Hot Biosphere: "a renowned scientist's revolutionary theory of a vast subterranean habitat and its significance for life's origins on our planet and the possibility of live elsewhere in the universe" by Thomas Gold
Copernicus, Springer-Verlag, 1999.
ISBN 0-387-98546-8

Well, this new book of Thomas Gold's is getting a lot of play. I just read it. All 208 pages of it. And I'll say this for it: if it's true, it's certainly is revolutionary.

Here's the pitch. "Fossil fuels" aren't fossils. They don't come from squished dinosaurs or ancient buried vegetation. Hydrocarbons like methane and crude oil are inherent planetary substances. They're basically the same material as the "carbonaceous chondrites" seen in asteroids, or the methane and ethane seen in Jupiter and its moons. The earth is heavily loaded with various primeval oils and tarry goos, which have been slowly cooked out of its crust over the eons by radioactive heat from the core.

Here's where it gets weirder. The substances we know as oil and natural gas have been streaming up toward the planet's surface since the planet first formed. When this hydrocarbon muck is still about ten kilometers down, it gets caught within pores of the stone by primeval archaic bacteria. These bugs live inside rock, they eat this primeval asteroid goo, and they turn it into the stuff we call "coal" and "crude oil." They are chemosynthetic organisms, and they thrive in extremely high, oxygen-free temperatures, in vast, impossible numbers. They're probably the original form of life on Earth.

Primitive earthly life probably started inside the Earth, in these flowing high-energy streams of goo and muck, long before the surface was colonizable. Oil and gas looks like organic products to a biochemist, but that's not because they are fossilized. It's because they've been basically fermented by a previously unsuspected ecosystem of archaic bacteria. These ancient bugs basically saturate the entire rocky crust of the planet. By weight, they're probably eighty percent of all living things on Earth.

And that's just the start of Gold's theory. These primeval bugs give off enough fizzy foul-smelling gas to break rocks and start earthquakes. Most metal deposits: gold, zinc, silver etc == are not caused by flowing water or lava, but by flowing hydrocarbons filtered and transformed by bugs.

Even though coal sometimes has fossils in it, coal is not fossil material. Basically, coal is mats of peat that got into the way of an ongoing hydrocarbon flow, and have been fossilized with carbon the way a petrified tree is fossilized with silicon.

Most planets in the solar system share Earth's origins, so if they have life, it is probably single- celled and subterranean. And they probably do have life.
Whole gooey tons of life.

We're never going to "run out of oil." It's not possible. Left to themselves long enough, most depleted oil patches will slowly fill back up. Because they're not buried deposits. They're lakes, backed up from streams originating far deeper down. The planet would have smothered in its own CO2 like Venus a long time ago, except that the surface biosphere has been laboring mightly to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and save it in massive fossil chalkbeds up on the surface.

Even if we did run out of oil, there are enough methane hydrates oozing up in ocean sediments to make all known oil reserves on Earth seem minor. There's probably "oil" or "coal" under almost everything , any kind of non-porous rock that can catch the flow and hold it down for a while. It's just that mistaken geological assumptions have led us to drill for oil in a minor variety of places.

Who is Thomas Gold? Well, he's not an insane crank.
He's a physicist, and a very blue-sky thinker. Gold was the first guy to theorize that pulsars were rotating neutron stars. He theorized that the early Earth might have flipped its axis of rotation (which, apparently, it did). Gold has been saying for quite a long time that oil and gas are basic planetary substances, not fossils. But now he's put together his best arguments in book length, and his thesis is considerably embroidered with many sub- theories and bizarre implications.

Here are some reasons not to dismiss the whole scheme immediately:

  1. Plate tectonics is a weirder idea than this, and that wasn't accepted until the 1960s.

  2. Geology's full of ancient dogma because geology's a very old science. We thought we understood the earth long before we caught on to the truth about the other planets. Planets and asteroids have plenty of goop that looks like coal, natural gas, and oil.

  3. If oil is a fossil, then how come oil beds are so often full of helium? Helium is an astrophysics thing; there aren't any plants or animals that metabolize helium.

  4. It took us until the 1970s to realize that the earth has chemosynthetic life forms. But these creatures live around the tectonic rifts that girdle the whole planet. That's the biggest habitat on earth. These vent creatures are totally dependent on weird, thermophile bacteria.
    And they're not just based on volcanic seeps either, because these biota have also been discovered around underwater oil seeps.

  5. Once people started looking for subterranean bacteria, they've have been able to find living bacteria as far down as they've been able to drill.

Extraordinary statements require extraordinary evidence. There's a lot less evidence than I'd like to see in this book. For one counter-argument, I couldn't help but notice that Gold's "pores" in the stony Earth have whatever qualities he needs, whenever he needs them to make his case. Sometimes they're fast, sometimes they're slow, sometimes they're chemical filters, sometimes they're high-speed conduits, sometimes they're tiny, sometimes they're oceanic, sometimes they're steady- state, sometimes they're catastrophic, and so on. Granted, the Earth has a lot of natural variety, but that's not for our rhetorical convenience.

But if he's half-right about any of the stuff he says here, the human race knows nothing worth knowing about the biosphere and carbon dioxide. If he's right, we've been utterly ignorance throughout the twentieth century about the most basic facts of planetary life.

O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O
O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O O=c=O