Computers used to cost millions. Now they're being given away. The country was rapidly going broke. Now we've got a $115 billion budget surplus. Butter was bad for us. Now we're not so sure. We're being forced to reexamine all our old assumptions on millennial eve, right?

So maybe we should finally pay attention to Thomas Gold. He says the world has an endless supply of oil and gas.

Gold, a Vienna-born physicist, cosmologist and general scientific heavy lifter, founded and for many years directed the Cornell Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. In his 79 years he's authored more than 280 scholarly papers on subjects ranging from astronomy to zoology.

He's also a full-time heretic, periodically parachuting into some new scientific field and infuriating academic plodders there with some outlandishly bold new theory. More annoying, his theories usually turn out to be right. Worst of all, he thinks the orthodox have so gummed up the gates of knowledge that they were more open to breakthroughs 50 years ago.

Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould has labeled Gold "one of America's most iconoclastic scientists." Says Gold himself: "In choosing a hypothesis there is no virtue in being timid . . . [but] I clearly would have been burned at the stake in another age."

In 1947, fresh from pioneering wartime work on the development of radar, he used his research into high-frequency receptors to publish an entire new theory of mammalian hearing. Physiologists shrugged it off for 30 years. Until auditory technology evolved enough to prove him correct.

In 1959, when everybody thought the surface of the moon was frozen lava, Gold decided it was covered with dust from meteor impacts. Footprints of the Apollo astronauts will testify eternally that he was was right about that, too.

In 1967 astronomers trashed his suggestion that energy pulsating in the distant universe was the signature of collapsing stars. The subsequent observation of pulsars won two other scientists a Nobel Prize. And proved Gold correct.

In 1992 he predicted that Martian meteorites might contain fossilized microbes. Four years later NASA announced the same thing.

Now in a new book, "The Deep Hot Biosphere," Gold says the origin and bulk of biological life is not on the surface of the Earth where the birds and bunnies are, but deep within it. Moreover, that microscopic life force is fueled by an inexhaustible supply of petroleum constantly migrating outward from our planet's volcanic core.

Eight years ago, when Gold was still developing his theory, some geologists were so incensed by it they petitioned to have the government remove all mention of it from the nation's libraries.

"It was an effort at book-burning, pure and simple," Gold says, shuffling around a computer-buzzing, paper-littered attic study as energetically unkempt as he is. Most petroleum geologists, he says, "simply have no concept of the laws of physics at work" beneath the Earth's crust.

People need to understand, he says, that the long-held assumption that oil comes from the millennial composting of dinosaurs and ancient swamps has always been dubious, whatever school science books may say. His theory of a deep, hot biosphere doesn't just solve its contradictions, it sorts out in the process such minor matters as the origin of all earthly life and its relationship with the rest of the universe.

Is there any wonder it makes people nervous?

Way Outside the Box

What's unique about Thomas Gold, says astronomer Steve Maran of the American Astronomical Society, is that unlike most scientists who are content to "pursue the advancement of knowledge in small, incremental steps," Gold "comes up with new ideas by starting from the original principles" in some field where others have labored for years.

When that happens, he's often "treated like a curiosity that can't be taken seriously," Maran says. "But he always shakes things up in a useful way, often opens up entire new areas of thought. Some denounce him even as they profit from the push he's given their thinking."

"Gold's style is in turn charming, intriguing and exasperating: short on details (where the Devil lies) and long on fiats and suppositions," sighed eminent geochemist Harmon Craig of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, reviewing Gold's book in Eos, the journal of the American Geophysical Union.

But if Gold is right about subterranean microbes being the seeds of all life, and if they survive the Earth's next asteroid collision to restart evolution, he adds, "Let us hope that when new humans finally emerge and invent science they will have another Tom Gold to delight and exasperate them with his theories."

On this particular day the heretic himself is stopping by the local techno-emporium to pick up a new computer. It's a Macintosh, and with its blue-and-white neon tones and "Star Trek" design it looks like something morphed from one of his theories. It's unclear just why his former computer succumbed. It was only a year old, but he may have made it think too much.

"Supposedly all my files have been transferred into this one," he says skeptically, accepting only a modicum of help lugging it through the garage and up to his study. "But of course, you never really know."

Gold says his curiosity has been getting him in trouble ever since his father gave him a watch when he was little and he took it apart. He's worked at reassembling things ever since.

One of his boldest constructs was the steady-state theory of the universe, which is now regarded, says Craig, as "beautiful but untrue." Still, as cosmologist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton says, if Gold hadn't put forward the steady-state theory, astronomers might not have been inspired enough to dream up the Big Bang theory, which replaced it.

We probably shouldn't be too hard on Gold for not quite figuring out the universe on his first try. After all, he rushed through Cambridge in only two years (there was a war on) and his degree was in engineering.

But his mind had impressed his friend Hermann Bundi, one of Cambridge's famous wartime coterie of mathematical geniuses, who suggested Gold would be useful on a highly classified war project. There was only one problem: Gold was interned at the time as an enemy alien. He and his parents were Austrian citizens, and despite being refugees from Hitler (his father was Jewish), they had been technically classified as Germans by the British after war broke out in 1939.

"I was probably the first person to go right from internment as an enemy to work on an ultra-secret project like radar," he muses.

After the war he went back to Cambridge where, impressed with his brilliance, administrators presented him with a prized four-year fellowship to do anything he wanted.

"I told them I would like to teach advanced physics," Gold remembers. "They said that was fine. But since I had never studied any physics, I had to learn it myself night by night, before each lecture."

In the process, he read widely on all sides of the subject and became convinced all physics was related. From that he published his steady-state theory, which held that whatever had happened once in the universe must be occurring someplace in the universe today.

That made a big splash in scientific circles and, says Gold, "I'm still not entirely sure it's wrong." From there he moved on in 1953 to become assistant to Britain's astronomer royal, who heads the Greenwich Observatory and holds one of the country's most prestigious intellectual posts.

There he says he accidentally discovered the ultrasound phenomenon now used to check out unborn babies. But his boss decided it had nothing to do with astronomy and tore down his laboratory, so Gold left for the United States.

He landed in Harvard in 1955, "either the youngest or the second youngest full professor on the faculty. I forget which." But he refused to live in Boston and detested commuting from the suburbs, so within four years he had migrated to a "much more livable" environment at Cornell.

He's been here causing trouble ever since.

Fueling Passion

Gold, who holds prestigious appointments to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London, turned his attention to petroleum during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. He has not been universally welcomed by industry geologists. Gold's hypothesis on the origin of petroleum amid deep hot life "is not very well defended," sniffed geoscientist Alton Brown of Atlantic Richfield in a review of "The Deep Hot Biosphere" in American Scientist last July. "We . . . know too much about the subsurface and about petroleum geochemistry to seriously consider these ideas."

But Gold is used to being dissed. While scientists like Brown have traditionally sought to explain petroleum by looking in the ground, Gold says, he developed his theory by looking in the other direction.

Far from being an earthly substance, he says, petroleum and its component hydrocarbons are present throughout the universe. You find them in meteorites. You find them in captured interplanetary dust. You can detect them quite abundantly on one of the moons of Saturn. About all this there is no scientific argument.

As an astronomer and geophysicist, he says, "it always seemed absurd to me to see petroleum hydrocarbons on other planets, where there was obviously never any vegetation, even as we insist that on Earth they must be biological in origin."

Yet wherever earthly petroleum is found, even miles below ground, oil always contains biological material, such as the wreckage of old, dead cells. If "fossil fuel" wasn't formed from ancient plants and animals, how did that material get there?

Another puzzle bothered Gold, though he says it seems to concern few others: the gas helium. Helium is one of the essential elements of the universe, present in trace amounts everywhere in nature. As a so-called "noble" gas, it stays chemically aloof from other elements, never combining like, say, hydrogen and oxygen do to form a third substance like water. Yet the only place on Earth helium is ever found in abundance is with pools of petroleum underground.

What, Gold wondered, could explain that?

Then in 1977 a tiny research submarine probing deep beneath the Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Islands discovered something that revolutionized our understanding of life.

More than 1 1/2 miles down on an ocean floor made otherwise barren by darkness and crushing pressure, the sub's floodlights revealed entirely new ecosystems living amid the scalding 600-degree heat and mineral-rich eruptions of subsea volcanic vents. On subsequent expeditions, scientists were astounded to find an entire food chain at the vents--blood red giant tube worms, albino crabs and other creatures--thriving on previously unknown forms of heat-loving microbes where no possibility of life was thought to exist.

That got Gold thinking.

Last year, in his book "Consilience," Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, a polymathic heretic like Gold, stirred the scientific pot by arguing that all forms of human knowledge are really branches of biology, and serve an evolutionary goal. But Gold goes further than that.

"Perhaps biology is just a branch of thermodynamics," he has written, and the history of life is just "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 . . . people--which feed indirectly on solar energy--are just a [much later] adaptation of that life to . . . circumstances on the surface of our planet."

Endless Oil?

Working from that hypothesis, Gold's theory goes like this: Oil and gas were born out of the Big Bang and trapped in the Earth 4.5 billion years ago in randomly dispersed molecular form. But the intense heat of the Earth's volcanic core "sweats them out" of the rocks that contain them, sending them migrating outward through the porous deep Earth because they are more fluid and weigh less. In a region between 10 and 300 kilometers deep, the hydrocarbons nourish vast colonies of microbes where all of earthly life began, and where today there's a vastly greater mass of living things than exists on the surface of the planet. The migrating oil and gas "sweep up" the biological wreckage of this life as they percolate upward, together with molecules of helium, all of which eventually get trapped and concentrated for periods in near-surface reservoirs where oil is usually found.

As far out as all this may sound, in the years since Gold first noised the outlines of his theory, researchers throughout the world have documented extensively the presence of active microbes in the deep Earth under conditions of heat and pressure once thought impossible to sustain life.

Furthermore, some oil reservoirs long thought exhausted now appear to be mysteriously refilling. Gold considers the best proof of his program the extraction of 12 tons of crude oil in 1990 from a 6-kilometer-deep well drilled in the long-presumed oil-free granite of central Sweden.

Chris Flavin of World Watch Institute says he's found many elements of Gold's theory "pretty persuasive" in the light of such discoveries, and says there's much to cheer environmentalists. If Gold is right, he says, the greatest abundance of accessible hydrocarbons will be found in the form of natural gas. Gas is not only the cleanest-burning energy source right now, it promises "to be the bridge to the hydrogen economy in the future" which will be cleaner still, he says.

But skeptics remain.

"We know there's carbon deep within the Earth because that's where we find diamonds," says Nick Woodward, a geoscience program manager with the Energy Department. "And we know there's water, at least in small amounts, which, since it's hydrogen and oxygen, gives us the building blocks for petroleum hydrocarbons. . . . "But whether that therefore means the source of all hydrocarbons is in the deep Earth, I think that's highly questionable."

Gold shrugs off such unbelievers. The scientific world, allegedly searching for truth, is really little more hospitable to it than when Galileo fell afoul of the Inquisition, he says.

"You know, I am very lucky that I received recognition and honors early in my career, so that by the time I started making real waves I already had stature," he says. "Even with my record I've had a terrible time getting some of these papers published. Without it nobody would touch me. . . .

"The problem is this system of peer review" wherein established scholars in a field pass judgment on new papers before publication, he says. "That rewards small steps but discourages bold ideas and the very sort of cross-discipline thinking that can provide the greatest breakthroughs. I don't think there's any question that we produced more great ideas in the first half of the 20th century than we have in the second"--when peer review has ruled.

Nevertheless, Gold soldiers on. He's presently writing his memoirs of a lifetime of heresy. Chosen title: "Getting the Back Off the Watch."

CAPTION: In "The Deep Hot Biosphere," Thomas Gold argues that petroleum does not come from decomposed organic matter but is a byproduct of the Big Bang, trapped in vast amounts deep within the Earth.

CAPTION: "I clearly would have been burned at the stake in another age," Gold says.