The High Resolution Life

Ernest Sternglass, Nuclear Reductionist
Summer 2015

Photo | NASA

Most people don’t really shoot the moon, but Ernest Sternglass made sure we could send images from it. The iconic video images from the first lunar landing are etched in our collective memory. The contributions of this radiation physicist and inventor were far-reaching (beyond those 240,000-some miles). He helped create digital X-rays, ban atmospheric atomic bomb testing, and then some. In both his radiology career and his public health activism, Sternglass, who spent 30 years as member of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine faculty and died February 12 at the age of 91, was a nuclear reductionist.


Theoreticians and Cobblers

For Sternglass’s career path, we have Albert Einstein, as well as Sternglass’s parents, to thank.

Sternglass’s family had fled Germany in 1938, when he was 14. Sternglass finished high school in New York City when he was 16. The young man’s early passion was theoretical physics, but his mother, who was a physician (as was his father), thought a physics degree would make him unemployable. So Sternglass instead enrolled in electrical engineering at Cornell University. After he finished his degree in 1944, he volunteered for the navy. World War II ended just before he was due to ship out, and he wound up working at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. Results from his studies there on secondary electron emission were applied in night vision systems.

That work suggested to him that the accepted theory of secondary electron emission might be wrong. Einstein’s description of the photoelectric effect, in which beams of ultraviolet light dislodge an electron from a metal, opened the field of quantum physics and won him the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. Secondary electron emission is a related phenomenon to the photoelectric effect, when an additional electron or electrons are emitted.

Sternglass wrote to Einstein about his observations. To his surprise, Einstein wrote back and invited him to come to Princeton.

Sternglass later noted in his memoirs how remarkable it was that, as a young man with no advanced degree in physics, he would be asked to meet with the most important physicist since Newton to hash out his theories.

Sternglass spent five hours with Einstein. The esteemed scientist wore baggy gray pants and slippers, hair seemingly electrified by his brainpower, just as Sternglass had seen in pictures. The two talked in German on the back porch and walked in the garden. Einstein took Sternglass to his study, where Einstein showed him some of his work toward a grand unified theory of physics, combining quantum and classical mechanics. Einstein bemoaned that he would never know if this work mattered. They also discussed the atomic bomb and Einstein’s fears of it being used again.

In a 2013 story, the science publication Nautilus recounted that meeting and how Sternglass suggested that in secondary electron emission, every electron should be considered, not just the outermost ones (as is the case in Einstein’s description of the photoelectric effect). Einstein reportedly said, “That sounds reasonable to me.” Sternglass would probe this question for years. He was right.

They also spoke of neutrons, the transmutation of these nuclear particles, and the nature of matter. (Sternglass had his own theories.)

During their 1947 meeting, Einstein asked if Sternglass planned to go to graduate school in physics. Sternglass had been seriously considering this (against his mother’s wishes), and said yes. Einstein admonished him. “Don’t go back to school. They will try to crush every bit of originality out of you.”

He then told Sternglass, “Always have a cobbler’s job. Always have a job where you can get up in the morning, face yourself, that you’re doing something useful for humanity. Because nobody can be a genius every day. Don’t make that kind of mistake.”

Sternglass said he came away from that meeting a changed man. He did go on to graduate school in physics at Cornell, but his PhD would be in applied and engineering physics.

The two would continue their conversation through letters in the years to come. For the most part, Sternglass wrote in English, and Einstein replied in German.

Nautilus called their correspondence “one of the 20th century’s most important disregarded pieces of science . . . at least a generation ahead of its time.” The magazine had Einstein’s letters to Sternglass translated and described how Sternglass’s experimental data from work at Cornell and later suggested a path to creating a sustainable energy source, using low-energy physics. It was known that a proton could absorb an electron and become a neutron, but Sternglass observed this happening at far lower energy than expected.

Sternglass knew that what he was doing was not explained by conventional physics. (And he would later be unable to replicate his experiments, though a colleague did.) Einstein proposed that Sternglass was seeing electrons act collectively to produce a neutron in a low-energy nuclear reaction. This idea was unprovable at the time, but recent research suggests it is possible.

The year Sternglass met Einstein and began this exchange of ideas, 1947, was pivotal for another reason: Sternglass and his first wife had a baby. In the child’s first year, he began having developmental issues, like being unable to sit up. Sternglass’s first thought was that it was a genetic condition, caused by radiation damage. His father was a dermatologist. In the 1920s, X-rays were often used to treat skin conditions like acne, but his father never wore a lead apron. It nagged at Sternglass that his dad had possibly damaged a gene and passed that on to Sternglass, who had passed it on to his child. The baby turned out to have Tay–Sachs disease and would die at 2 and a half. The tragedy presaged Sternglass’s shadow life as an anti-nuclear activist. More immediately though, he continued his scientific life examing the subatomic.


The late Ernest Sternglass was known for his studies in low-light imaging, radiology, theoretical physics, and the dangers of radiation exposure to infants and others. His congressional testimony helped ban nuclear bomb testing. | Photo courtesy University of Pittsburgh Archives




Shoot the Moon

The year before Sternglass finished his PhD at Cornell, Westinghouse’s Research Division hired him to research nuclear instrumentation and investigate secondary electron emission and its applications in low-light imaging and other areas. The job meant moving to Pittsburgh, a city he would grow to love.

At Westinghouse, he also kept Einstein up to date on his experiments with secondary electrons. Einstein’s last letter to him was in 1954, 13 months before Einstein’s death.

In 1958, Sternglass—who had divorced and remarried—was honeymooning in Paris. While there, he took in an exhibition on the Peaceful Atom, the concept that the splitting of the atom could be used for things other than war. Yet Sternglass, like many others then, could not avoid thinking about the specter of nuclear war; and he began reading about fallout shelters, those hard symbols of Cold War hope. He decided they were useless since survivors who’d emerge would be contaminated and die as well.

By the ’60s, Sternglass had become concerned about the public health effects of radiation—including low-level exposure. Other researchers, among them MDs, had concluded that low-levels of X-rays administered to pregnant women were significantly increasing the rate of childhood leukemia and infant mortality. Studies showed that the exposure of the public from atmospheric bomb testing resulted in a similar level of exposure.

In 1963, Sternglass published a paper in Science on disease rates for children exposed to radiation while in the womb, some of the first epidemiological work on the impact of fallout from nuclear-bomb testing. He testified in front of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in favor of a treaty banning testing aboveground, underwater, and in outer space; the treaty was ratified. Sternglass felt that this was one of the major contributions of his life, according to his son, Daniel Sternglass.

Exciting things were happening at Westinghouse, too. A low-light imaging system based on his work went up on an early satellite and broadcast video back from space in 1963. Daniel Sternglass was roughly 5 at the time; he remembers his father jumping up and down in excitement when the feed aired on their black-and-white television.

The technology was key to imaging several missions, including Apollo 11. During that first moon landing in 1969, Daniel Sternglass notes, NASA mission control commented to the command module astronaut in lunar orbit, Michael Collins, “I guess you’re about the only person around that doesn’t have TV coverage of the feed.”

His work at Westinghouse resulted in nine patents. By the 1970s, several applications—including heat and radiation sensors and image intensifiers—would be developed from secondary electron emission tube work.

In the late ’60s, space-related budgets were feeling cuts to NASA funds. So after a six-month sabbatical working with Nobel laureate Robert Hofstadter at Stanford University, Sternglass moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine to develop electronic imaging in medicine. He became a professor of radiology and director of radiation physics; the University also made him a professor of radiological physics in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Sternglass worked with a number of scientists at Pitt, including Donald Sashin, who was finishing a PhD in medium-energy physics at Carnegie Mellon University when Sternglass brought him into his lab. “He was [already] a very senior person, a very famous inventor,” Sashin recalls. “The stuff he did at Westinghouse was brilliant.”

They started with a laboratory in Presbyterian University Hospital. Later, they would add a second lab in Scaife Hall. Sashin, who’s now an associate professor of radiology, called him “Dr. Sternglass,” and Sternglass called Sashin “Don.”

Ultimately, Sternglass led the group that developed advanced X-ray imaging at Pitt. This new approach used sensors, rather than film, and operated like a modern digital camera.

“A lot of people at that time were concerned about the effects of radiation on people,” Sashin says. “He wanted to do something that would reduce radiation and still give good-quality pictures.” Not only did their approach reduce the X-ray dose, it made it possible to process the images to highlight details, “much like Photoshop does today,” notes Daniel Sternglass. The result gave cardiologists and oncologists the ability to see the true extent of a tumor’s growth or other problems, one Diagnostic Imaging paper notes.

Sternglass and Sashin predicted in 1983 that digital systems would replace film. The advance was inevitable, they said, and would mean “radiology likely will be performed at the ultimate theoretical limit dictated by the quantum nature of X-rays, where every photon penetrating the patient is utilized to produce the highest quality radiographs at the lowest possible dose.”

Carl Fuhrman (MD ’79, Res ’83), a Pitt professor of radiology, considered Sternglass a visionary: “He was certainly a pioneer in digital imaging and its potential for reducing doses of radiation, at a time when most thought that X-ray film would never be replaced.”

The Sternglass-Sashin partnership lasted for nearly 30 years, well into Sternglass’s “retirement,” even after his wife took a job at Indiana University. (Marilyn Sternglass would develop a model for teaching writing; it’s based on having students write about their own lives.) The Sternglasses moved to Bloomington, Ind., but the retiree continued to come back to the Pitt lab to work. In all, Sashin and Sternglass earned five patents for their research together, the last of which included David Gur, an ScD Pitt professor of radiology.

Sternglass had many interests. He took great pleasure in sailing—being out on the water in nature and being driven by the elements. He was able to enjoy the pastime on his son’s boat in Ithaca until very late in life. His children remember him as involved with their lives.

When Daniel Sternglass was young, they built large model airplanes and rockets and entered them into competitions. He had Daniel help him with small projects around the house.

Once, he even let Daniel take apart the family television to see if he could figure out why it stopped working. Daniel had parts spread all over the living room. He realized which vacuum tube had stopped working, and that he had the same tube in the basement. He raced downstairs, retrieved the tube, and got the television back together and running. Daniel went on to become an engineer and technology entrepreneur.

Daniel’s sister, Susan Sternglass Noble, remembers the sabbaticals and other travel, especially their time in Israel and in Palo Alto (where their backyard had a lemon tree in it). Her love of learning languages and travel led her into global money management; she has lived in London for 25 years and will soon take up a post in Hong Kong. Both children attended the Fanny Edel Falk School, Taylor Allderdice High School, and then Cornell.


Impassioned Activist

Outside of radiology circles, Sternglass was better known for his activism. In 1967, Pittsburgh became ground zero in a debate over the Plowshare Program, an effort by the U.S. government to find peaceful uses for atom bombs. One was Project Ketch, a plan to use atom bombs to create an underground storage cavity for natural gas in central Pennsylvania. Sternglass wrote an op-ed column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arguing against it. That same week, he attended a public meeting involving high-ranking officials. Henry Pierce, the Post-Gazette’s senior science correspondent, was given the chance to ask a question. Instead, he yielded the microphone to Sternglass, who made a statement about the risks to cow milk production and other potential issues. That sparked intense debate over the project, which was later scotched.

Sternglass also published a 1969 article in Esquire arguing that fallout from advanced nuclear weapon tests could have severe repercussions for infant health across the United States. The article was immensely controversial, not least because some of the sources of Sternglass’s statistics voiced concerns about the way he had used their numbers. His critics could be intense, his son Daniel Sternglass remembers. “I was maybe in seventh grade, and I said to him, ‘Don’t these personal attacks bother you after a while?’” And he said to me, ‘Sometimes you have to judge a person by their enemies.’”

He clashed regularly with U.S. government and industry officials about issues pertaining to nuclear fallout and what levels of emissions from nuclear power plants were safe.

Sternglass and Pitt physicist Bernard Cohen engaged in a heated debate about whether fallout from a Chinese nuclear bomb test might affect Pennsylvanians. As reported by Pierce in the Post-Gazette, Sternglass and another Pitt faculty member, biologist Frederick Gottlieb, expressed concern about the impact of contaminated fresh milk on pregnant and breast-feeding women and their children; Cohen said he was not “personally alarmed” at the risks. Sternglass said, sarcastically, “Are you pregnant?” And under his breath he snorted, “Personally alarmed! Humph!”

The two continued butting heads over the years. As recently as 2008, Cohen wrote a rebuttal to a Sternglass op-ed in which Sternglass suggested that two Pennsylvania nuclear plants should be converted to run on natural gas.

Sternglass was afforded the academic freedom at Pitt to pursue issues and ideas he felt were important, beyond medical imaging. At times, the University stood up for him when government officials were unhappy with his often controversial positions on the health effects of living in a nuclear age, including preparations for war and low-level radiation exposure. And for this he was very grateful, his son and daughter say.

In 1997, Sternglass published a memoir (Before the Big Bang), in which he takes the reader through a long list of eminent physicists he got to know through his work and training, including Nobel laureates Louis de Broglie, Richard Feynman, and others. He also outlines his ideas about the origins of the universe and particle physics. Sternglass’s theoretical models of the universe’s creation predict that the Higgs boson particle would not exist. He later believed that Higgs boson was a highly excited electron-positron state, and that it was unclear what the final resolution of the structure of an elementary particle might be.

Sternglass once told an interviewer that his ideas might not be validated until long after he was dead. That, he said, was all right. “You have to take the long view.”


Letters translated by Hans Jochen Trost for Nautilus magazine, 2013.

After meeting with Albert Einstein in 1947, Ernest Sternglass continued their conversation about theoretical physics (and, at times, philosophy) through letters. Typically, Sternglass wrote in English, and Einstein responded in German.


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Video: Sternglass on Einstein, the Universe, and Everything

Video: First Moon Landing 1969

Video collection: NASA's Apollo 11 HD videos


Newspaper archives

Text: From the front page of the New York Times on July 21, 1969: "Men Walk on Moon"

Thanks to Daniel Sternglass for the links!