Ben Bova: We go back a long, long way

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The late astronomer Thomas Gold often said, "I'd rather be wrong than dull."

There's something to be said for that attitude. For a scientist like Gold it meant he was willing to stick his neck out with an untried, untested idea and let the chips fall where they may. He was often criticized, sometimes laughed at, but he was never dull.

Born in Britain, Gold was one of a trio of brilliant British astronomer/cosmologists who in 1948 proposed the Steady State theory of the origin of the universe. The other two were Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi.

Their theory proposed that the universe has always existed and always will. It is still being created, one atom at a time, out of nothing. The appearance of these new atoms forces the universe to expand.

The universe is expanding; that much has been observed, measured, confirmed. But most cosmologists (and many others, scientists and laymen alike) found it hard to accept that the universe is being built, one atom at a time, out of nothing.

The competing theory of the universe's origin is called the Big Bang theory. It posits that the universe began in a titanic explosion, and the universe's expansion is the result of that big bang. We — and the stars and galaxies — are all celestial shrapnel.

One of the key figures in developing the Big Bang theory was the Russian-born physicist George Gamow. He, too, was a man who could spin off ideas like a pinwheel flashing sparks.

Gamow was basically a nuclear physicist. When he put his mind to the question of the universe's beginning, he worked out a theory in which all the atoms of the universe, from hydrogen to uranium and beyond, were created at the moment of the Big Bang explosion.

What was there before the Big Bang? Nothing. Where did all the atoms of the universe come from? From nothing.

The major philosophical difference between the Steady State and Big Bang theories was the question of whether all the matter and energy of the universe began in an instant of one titanic explosion or whether it's constantly being created, one atom at a time.

Gold and his colleagues turned out to be wrong. But so did Gamow.

The available evidence confirms that the universe began in an instant. "Let there be light!"

But that initial flash of energy created only hydrogen, helium and a smattering of lithium, the three lightest elements. All the heavier atoms have been "cooked" in the nuclear fusion furnaces at the cores of stars. Most of the atoms in your body were created inside a star, eons ago.

We are stardust. Literally.

Years later, Gold got the idea that there must be microbes living deep beneath the Earth's surface, a "deep, hot, biosphere" of creatures that never see sunlight.

Biologists scoffed. All life depends on solar energy, they knew. What does an astronomer know about biology?

Turns out that Gold was right. There is a "deep, hot, biosphere" of microbes living underground. They don't need sunlight. They eat rocks and expel methane. Similar bugs might exist beneath the crust of Mars.

Gamow was often wrong, but he was often right, too. Same for Gold. They spewed ideas constantly. They were constantly thinking and creating, and they weren't afraid of being wrong.

To their names I might add a third G: Newt Gingrich. He's not a scientist, but he's more interested in science and technology than any other politician I can think of.

Newt is constantly spewing ideas too. Many of them don't make sense when you examine them closely. That's OK. He'd rather be wrong than boring.

But many of his ideas are quite good, and bear close scrutiny from voters.

I admit that I'm biased about Newt. When he was a congressman, he read a chapter of a nonfiction book of mine into the Congressional Record. It was "The High Road," which laid out a blueprint for our future in space. I think that Gingrich is the only politician who's read it.

He'd rather be wrong than dull. He'd also rather be president. He probably won't be, but we could do far worse.

And probably will.

Bova lives in Naples. His latest novel is "Power Surge," a political technothriller. Bova's web site address is www.benbova.com.

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