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Which Came First, the Fossil or the Fuel?

Simon A. Cole
Social Studies of Science
Vol. 26, No. 4 (Nov., 1996), pp. 733-766
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/285660
Page Count: 34
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Which Came First, the Fossil or the Fuel?
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Abstract

This paper chronicles a challenge to the conventional theory of petroleum generation mounted by astro- and geophysicist Thomas Gold. Beginning in the late 1970s, Gold revived the 'abiogenic' theory, which holds that hydrocarbons are primordial, not remnants of decayed biology. By contesting the central tenet of petroleum geology, Gold precipitated a bitter scientific controversy. Both sides employed novel rhetorical strategies in order to impute interests, to contest expertise, to recruit allies from peripheral disciplines, and to claim the mantle of scientific method; and both managed to construct plausible interpretations of the available data. We follow the controversy to Sweden, where two 'crucial experiments', deep wells drilled in igneous bedrock from 1986 to 1992, still failed to resolve the controversy. The oil well proves to be an unruly scientific instrument, difficult to construct and even more difficult to keep free of various forms of 'pollution', ranging from bacteria to drilling mud to simple greed.

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