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Pitt physicist offers spin on a universal theory

Beyond the rim of mainstream physics, a professor offers his ideas on matter and the nature of the universe

Monday, April 06, 1998

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Astrophysicists are abuzz this spring over observations of distant exploding stars that suggest the expansion of the universe is picking up speed.

Physicist Ernest Sternglass (Bill Wade Post-Gazette)

It's a new twist on an old question: Will the expansion of the universe that began in the Big Bang 15 billion years ago continue forever, eventually stop under the tug of gravity, or even reverse itself in a Big Crunch?

Evidence that the expansion actually is accelerating, first announced in January by an international team of astronomers, is still preliminary and hotly debated. But it raises the intriguing possibility that some strange force may be at work - some sort of anti-gravity, or what Albert Einstein called the cosmological constant.

Physicist Ernest Sternglass, on the other hand, offers his own spin - literally - to the question. The universe, he suggests, is not only expanding but rotating. If the expansion is accelerating, it's due to nothing more than plain old centrifugal force.

"It's just inertial force," said Sternglass, 74, an emeritus professor of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh, "the same kind of force that keeps the moon from falling down." It's the same force that makes his grandchildren hold on tight as they twirl on a park merry-go-round.

The rotating universe will continue to expand until the force of gravity balances the inertial forces, resulting in a stable cosmos.

This view, which Sternglass explains in his book, "Before the Big Bang," published late last year by Four Walls Eight Windows, is consistent with the predictions of Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher. But it is well outside the mainstream of contemporary physics.

Likewise, Sternglass' theory that the negatively charged electron and its oppositely charged twin, the positron, are the fundamental building blocks of the universe flies in the face of the standard model of particle physics.

"I'm very skeptical," said Allen Janis, a theoretical physicist at Pitt who has ruminated and argued with his friend Sternglass for four decades. "He's a very imaginative person ... but I'm not convinced ... There is a coherent, well-verified body of knowledge and this just doesn't fit with that at all."

Sternglass is accustomed to life outside the mainstream. It was Einstein, he says, who encouraged him to pursue his physics theories outside of academia while earning a living in applied science. Though his work at Westinghouse Research Laboratories led to development of the video camera tube that captured Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and to ultraviolet-light detectors used in orbiting telescopes, his outspoken concerns about the dangers of radioactive fallout and nuclear power plant emissions made him a controversial figure in the 1960s and '70s.

He says he is satisfied with his accomplishments and has no regrets about the choices he has made in his life and career. And he retains the enthusiasm of a young boy.

"When I look in the mirror," he said, "I cannot believe I'm as old as I am."

A meeting with Einstein

It was a decidedly fresh-faced Sternglass who uneasily rang the doorbell at Einstein's house in Princeton, N.J., one cool spring day in 1947.

Newly hired by the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, Sternglass had been asked to explore the possibility of developing a night vision system. He had some ideas for building a television camera that could detect infrared light and he had written to Einstein in hopes of discussing them with the great physicist.

Dressed in a baggy gray gym suit, Einstein showed Sternglass to the back porch. What Sternglass expected to be a brief discussion turned into a five-hour conversation. Einstein and Sternglass, who had immigrated from Berlin with his physician parents in 1938, chatted in German about the nature of light particles called photons, about Einstein's dislike for quantum mechanics and his frustration with trying to develop a unified theory that would explain all of the forces of the universe.

"I found him to be very depressed and very sad," Sternglass recalled. Einstein was upset that he had made little progress on his unified field theory, his wife had died, and his son suffered from mental illness. "Here was this man so widely admired and respected ... yet he felt a failure."

What most confounded Sternglass was Einstein's career advice. Sternglass was considering going back to school for an advanced degree in physics. Einstein advised him to pursue physics on his own and, perhaps most importantly, always have "a cobbler's job."

"Don't do what I have done," Sternglass, in his book, quotes Einstein as saying. He made a mistake, he told Sternglass, when he left his job as a patent examiner for a position with the University of Berlin. He had no real duties at the university, Einstein explained: "Nothing to do except wake up and solve the problems of the universe every morning. Nobody can do that."

Sternglass decided to return to Cornell University for graduate studies, eventually earning his doctorate, but he followed Einstein's advice in seeking a "cobbler's job." In 1952, he moved to Pittsburgh to join the Westinghouse lab. There, he could continue his studies in electron scattering and a phenomenon known as secondary electron emission, which interested Westinghouse because of its potential use in building electronic X-ray image intensifiers.

In 1967, he joined the Pitt Medical School's radiology department, where he investigated electronic techniques that would permit lower doses of diagnostic X-rays and applied computer techniques to enhance diagnostic images.

Earning and learning

While these jobs put food on the table, Sternglass pursued his interest in physics on the side. As Einstein had predicted, this arrangement allowed him to pursue far-out ideas and make his mistakes in private.

In 1963, Sternglass' work gained him a brief moment of fame. At a meeting of the American Physical Society in New York City, he outlined his theory on the nature of matter. He argued that all matter is composed of electrons and positrons.

Later that year, however, Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig of the California Institute of Technology developed a theory of quarks, fractionally charged subatomic particles that comprise the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei. Sternglass' theory was soon forgotten.

He would gain much more fame -- or infamy -- for his opposition to nuclear power. He argued that even low levels of nuclear fallout and radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants could damage children, raising infant mortality rates and depressing Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

The vast majority of scientists rejected these notions. Neither Westinghouse nor Pitt ever tried to muzzle him, but Sternglass knows that his stands isolated him within the scientific community.

"Many of my former friends were very upset," he said.

His own interest in electrons and positrons was revived in 1974 when physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center discovered a particle they called the J/Psi meson. It was both an unusually dense and unusually long-lived particle and it got Sternglass wondering about the nature of the "primeval atom."

The primeval atom was a concept developed by Georges Lamaitre, a Belgian priest and astrophysicist, in the 1920s. He envisioned the universe being created by the breakup of this primeval atom, an idea that presaged the Big Bang theory.

Sternglass saw this primeval atom as an electron-positron pair. This pair of particles rapidly orbited each other and contained all of the mass of the universe.

In a series of steps beginning billions of years before the Big Bang, this electron-positron pair went through a series of splits, creating thousands of electron-positron "seed pairs" from which galaxies later would emerge.

By contrast, according to the standard model of particle physics, the universe was condensed into an infinitely dense point before the Big Bang.

Sternglass said his model and the standard model don't differ markedly in terms of how elementary particles were formed in the minutes following the Big Bang.

Astrophysicists have long worried that the universe behaves as if it has much more mass than humans can see. Sternglass suggests some of this "missing mass" may be in the form of seed pairs that did not expand immediately after the Big Bang and remain sprinkled through the universe.

A universe in ether

In addition to suggesting that the universe is rotating, Sternglass resurrects the 3,000-year-old notion of the universe existing within an "ether," a liquid-like medium. Scientists once considered ether essential. For instance, scientists who observed light behaving like a wave reasoned that light would have to move through some sort of medium if it was to make waves.

But Einstein's photoelectric theory dispensed with the need for ether. He showed that light behaved as a particle, a photon. His theory of relativity also dispensed with ether, by showing that the speed of light need not be measured relative to an ether.

In Sternglass' view, matter exists as circular vortices -- something like a smoke ring -- moving through an ether. Just as air is capable of uprooting trees and tossing cars when whipped into a tornado, these vortices transform energy into mass, he said.

No one has ever been able to prove that ether exists, Sternglass acknowledged, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't.

"There are fashions in science just as there are fashions in art," he added. Ether is clearly out of fashion.

Fashions do exist, "but that's a double-edged sword," said Adolf Grunbaum, the Andrew Mellon Professor of philosophy of science at Pitt.

"The mere fact of the existence of fashions in science does not show, in a given case, that an unorthodox point of view is necessarily soundly supported by the evidence."

If most physicists aren't ready to embrace Sternglass' view, they might have trouble dismissing it, admitted Pitt's Janis. "As far as specific predictions he makes, there is nothing at the moment that could convincingly demonstrate that his ideas are wrong."

One important piece of evidence might come once a new particle accelerator, called the Large Hadron Collider, is completed at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists say the machine might produce a particle called the Higgs; if this particle is proven to exist, scientists believe it will confirm much of the standard model. Sternglass' theory predicts no such particle exists.

In the meantime, Sten Odenwald, an astronomer who works under contract with Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and runs the popular Astronomy Cafe Web site, said evidence from the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite in the early 1990s suggests the universe is not rotating, or at least not rotating much.

And even the recent evidence of possible acceleration of the universe's expansion may be questionable, Odenwald said. Those findings come from observing just a handful of exploding stars called supernovae. More observations could alter those findings dramatically.

Sternglass is realistic about his chances of convincing other physicists.

"Let's face it: When I present these things at astronomical meetings, it's a 10-minute presentation and people don't know what to make of it," he said.

"Nobody may believe me until after I'm dead," but that's OK, he added. "You have to take the long view."

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