The Deep Hot Biosphere

The conventional wisdom concerning oil, gas and coal, or fossil fuels as they are called is that they originated many eons ago as plants and animals that died and were buried. Deep under the surface, their remains were slowly transformed into the carbon compounds that make up coal and petroleum. The evidence for this view is that fossilized remains of life are generally associated with fossil fuels. The conventional wisdom is also that the surface of the Earth is the place where life originated and flourishes while conditions deep under the surface are too hot to support any life.


What if the conventional wisdom is wrong? What if the petroleum and coal that we depend on did not come from ancient life but instead came from carbon that has been present since the beginning of the Earth? What if under the surface of the Earth there was a whole biosphere of microorganisms? Surface life makes use of the energy of the Sun though photosynthesis. What if the microorganisms under the earth make use of chemosynthesis using the carbon as it is transported toward the surface, and oxygen? In other words, what if fossil fuels are not fossils at all, but a part of the Earth that has been transformed by sub surface life?

This is Thomas Gold’s hypothesis that he presents in his book, The Deep, Hot Biosphere. He makes a very convincing case and his hypothesis, if true, can explain a great many geological phenomena not well understood at present, such as the formation of metal ores in veins, some questions about earthquakes, and others. Gold points out that conditions under the Earth would be far more favorable for the origin of life that the surface. In the final chapter, Gold examines the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. So far, we have not found life on any other planet of the Solar System, but perhaps we are not looking in the right place. The surface of Mars, the Moon and the satellites of the gas giants are all hostile to life, but maybe we should look under the surface. Perhaps deep within Mars there lies the life we have been searching for.

Is the deep, hot biosphere hypothesis true? I couldn’t say not being an expert in this field. However, I will say that Thomas Gold shows himself to be a first class scientist by asking the questions. There has been a tendency in recent years to view science as some sort of final authority with all of the answers. How many times have you heard the latest study viewed as some sort of message from on high, or heard the phrase settled science? This is a misuse of science. Science is not an authority, but a method for asking the questions. Sometimes the most important work a scientist can do is to ask questions that everyone thinks they know the answer to. In this regard, The Deep, Hot Biosphere is an interesting book that is sure to make you think.

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5 Responses to “The Deep Hot Biosphere”

  1. Ben Dattilo Says:

    I heard of his abiogenic methane hypothesis over a decade ago when he drilled his test wells and claimed to have found oil in Pre-Cambrian basement rock. I had not heard anything about linking the origin of coal or metallic deposits to this hypothesis. Is that really in the book?

    • David Hoffman Says:

      Yes, in chapters 5 and 7. If I remember correctly, Thomas Gold speculated that coal is formed from hydrocarbons traveling towards the surface. As they rise, they lose hydrogen to oxygen molecules and so become more and more purely carbon and end up being deposited as various grades of coal. He also speculated that metals dissolved in these liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons would be a better explanation for the concentration of metal ores into veins than these metals dissolved in water.
      As a geologist, you would know better than I how much credence to give to this hypothesis, though I am afraid I have done a poor job summarizing it.

      • Ben Dattilo Says:

        My first response is to call it a classic case of physicist hubris.
        I should read it to get the arguments straight, but if he went as far as to argue coal, then it is little wonder that geologists dismissed his work. A deep biosphere is a possibility (because archaea are very odd in their environmental preferences), and deep, non-biogenic methane is at least plausible, if for no other reason than its presence, sometimes in massive quantities, on other planets. Countering the deep methane is mainly the idea of how the earth was differentiated–most of the methane should have escaped to the atmosphere.
        All carbon on earth arrived in some form or another from the accretion of gasses, dust, comets, and meteorites –the continuing process that built the earth originally. So yes, all carbon on earth is originally abiogenic (leaving aside panspermia) because all earth materials are from space. The crux of the Gold idea then is that there are vast stores of this carbon that have *not yet* been processed through biological systems at the surface of the earth, and that most fossil fuels derive from this reservoir(?).
        To test the idea you simply need to determine if the carbon on the surface of the earth was cycled through surface life, or if it just has the signature of archaea. There are multiple lines of evidence to suggest that the vast majority of carbon that we have accessed has been processed through the bodies of surface-dwelling life, and that these bodies were deposited through sedimentary processes. For simple methane, we are restricted to isotopic evidence—not so easy, so this is a lack of data. For more complex hydrocarbons like crude oil, there is more evidence than most people know: not only are they found in fossiliferous rock (which, rightly argued, are not their original homes), but they can be matched chemically to the obviously fossil solid carbon components of nearby source rocks (did the book mention kerogens?). Biomarker studies suggest a wide variety of organic sources ranging from land plants to plankton. One MIGHT still argue that the petroleum gained these signatures by passing through the rock (more difficult to argue that the kerogen bits in the rock derive from this process), but the argument begins to sound a bit ad hoc. If lots of deep oil turns up, then maybe there is something to think about.
        Coal, on the other hand, well, no way. Coal is not simply amorphous carbon. Coal consists of plant remains from bottom to top. You can split it and see plant bits. You can examine it under the microscope (with particular preparation techniques) and easily see that it does not merely contain bits of plant, it *is* bits of plants. Coal is always found in beds (parallel to sediments), Always in a reasonable sedimentary context, or in metasediments, never in veins (crack fillings—most things emplaced as fluids form veins), never in igneous rocks. Higher grades of coal (anthracite) are associated with metamorphism of the surrounding sediments as well.
        This leaves out the carbon isotopic record and its implications the flux of carbon between the solid and fluid phases of the earth. As for metals, well that is another problem equally complex, and I am equally skeptical.
        There are at least two previous cases in the history of geological sciences where eminent physicists saw their beautiful calculations dashed, like the heads of helpless infants, against the rocky shore of geologic facts.
        The first was Lord Kelvin, who, using calculations of heat loss, argued strenuously against the general intuition of knowledgeable geologists that the earth could not be more than (on his final calculation) 20 million years old. Kelvin had numbers, impressive calculations, and . . .he was Kelvin. Geologists relented and tried to cram their earth histories into 20 million years. Then it was discovered that radioactivity produces heat, and Ernest Rutherford went further to develop radiometric dating.
        Similarly, Continental Drift was rejected by physicists based on bad assumptions. See Naomi Oreskes-“The Rejection of Continental Drift”
        Geologists differ in their training from physicists in that we deal with complex problems—and are experienced in considering a vast database of experience—little of which can be easily quantified. Physics is reductionist, deals with sparse data sets, and employs a narrow set of simplistic solution algorithms. Geologists also use these approaches when they are appropriate, but physicists are not equipped to deal with information-rich systems. —to this day the greatest unsolved problem of Newtonian physics is turbulence. Geologists deal with turbulence routinely, we just don’t try to “solve” it.
        Have you ever noticed that young earth creationism counts in its ranks a vastly disproportionate numbers of engineers, chemists, medical doctors, and dentists? All of these disciplines suffer from narrow educations and heightened status—they also ignore the data because they know they are correct. Hubris.

      • David Hoffman Says:

        Thank you for taking the time and effort to respond so fully. I did not mean to start a feud between physicists and geologists. 🙂
        I should caution you, though, not to rely too much on my statements about Thomas Gold’s theories. I am a layman writing a book review of a book for the general public. It is possible he developed his ideas more fully and answered such objections in scientific papers. I’ll defer to your expertise on the subject though.
        I am not sure that his motivation was hubris exactly. Thomas Gold and his colleague Fred Hoyle were known to propose unorthodox, even strange hypotheses throughout their careers. Sometimes they were right. More often they were wrong. They were both most famous for their steady-state theory. I’ll give them credit for their imagination and even if they were often wrong, proving they were wrong provided valuable insights.

        I hadn’t noticed that young earth creationists had any scientific training at all. That was kind of mean but whenever I encounter YECers I am reminded of Augustine of Hippo’s comment on scientific ignorance.

        Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and the other elements of this world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions… Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

      • Ben Dattilo Says:

        Yes, Fred Hoyle was even more outlandish in his forays. I know a geologist who comes up with a lot of ideas as well. he is good about being wrong if you provide an argument. A very good quote from Augustine, and, unfortunately, as unknown to the YECs as things of the earth. Most are not well informed at all, but when they present a list of “scientists” they usually end up with a list of these technical types–engineers and doctors. Also true, that does not count as scientists, because none of these are involved in the creation of new knowledge–some build things, others repair stuff. I have had two conversations with medical doctors I met in transit who have argued against evolution or the age of the earth. It leaves me dumbfounded, but I have learned a lot about the difference between training and education.

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