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  Ernest Sternglass, lunar TV tube (1923-2015)

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Author Topic:   Ernest Sternglass, lunar TV tube (1923-2015)
Robert Pearlman

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Cornell University reports the death of physicist Ernest Sternglass, whose correspondence as a young physicist with Albert Einstein led to an electron amplification discovery that – two decades later – allowed hundreds of millions to watch live video of Apollo 11 astronauts walking on the moon.

Sternglass died of heart failure on Feb. 12 in Ithaca, New York. He was 91.

Beyond the space program, his physics research led to safer X-ray equipment using digital imaging, which brings out greater detail than is possible with film, using computer image processing. These systems are now used by nearly every doctor and hospital.

As astronaut Neil Armstrong climbed down from the lunar module in July 1969 and walked on the moon, a television camera attached to the moon lander and made by Sternglass’s employer, Westinghouse, captured all the low-light lunar action. Inside the video camera was a highly sensitive TV camera tube, originating from Sternglass’s research. Sternglass had concluded that he had observed a phenomenon that was different from Einstein’s photoelectric effect – for which Einstein won a Nobel Prize in 1921.

As a graduate student, Sternglass wrote to Einstein in November 1950, describing the “secondary electron emission” effect that Sternglass had been researching. Einstein replied that his idea seemed reasonable and urged the young physicist to pursue it.

Einstein counseled Sternglass not to pursue a career in theoretical physics, lest “the originality be crushed out of him.” The Nobelist encouraged him to pursue his own ideas, writing: “Always keep a cobbler’s job where you can get up in the morning and face yourself that you are doing something useful. Nobody can be a genius and solve the problems of the world every day.” Sternglass took Einstein’s advice and pursued advanced degrees at Cornell in applied physics.

The subsequent development of the secondary electron emission theory led to the development of the television camera tube – the so-called image intensifier – that amplified low-light images. The defense department had been using the tube in highly secret spy cameras, but NASA, in the early 1960s, commissioned the company to make similar video cameras for the early moon landings.

David Carey

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