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Einstein’s Lost Hypothesis

Is a third-act twist to nuclear energy at hand?

When Ernest Sternglass walked up the steps at 112 Mercer Street in April 1947, he knew it would not be a normal day. Like a church deacon summoned to meet the Pope, Sternglass—a 23-year-old researcher at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C.—had arrived in Princeton, N.J., at the invitation of its most renowned resident, Albert Einstein. Having completed only a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, he had written to Einstein earlier that month about the work he was doing in his lab. To his great surprise, not only did Einstein promptly write back, he requested that Sternglass visit Princeton to discuss the work in person.

What Sternglass didn’t know is that his visit to Einstein would set off a chain of correspondence, involving both an unpublished experiment (his) and an unpublished hypothesis (Einstein’s) that together may constitute one of the century’s most important disregarded pieces of science. The reason why the science was overlooked is plain enough: It was at least a generation ahead of its time. Now, more than half a century later, the work is being re-examined, with potentially profound implications for sustainable energy production. For Sternglass was to discover how to create free neutrons with household wall socket evergy levels—and Einstein was to explain why.

On that spring day in 1947, though, Sternglass was a humble visitor to the St. Peter’s Basilica of physics. Having arrived in Princeton, he knocked on the door of the clapboard house, was let into the foyer by a secretary, and was soon confronted with the now-famous silhouette: an elderly man with a frizzy-haired halo, wearing an old sweat suit and bedroom slippers.

The reason why the science was overlooked is plain enough: It was at least a generation ahead of its time.

Sternglass had contacted Einstein because his lab in Washington was investigating how electrons are ejected from a metal when hit by a beam of electrons. The Navy wanted to understand this process better so they could develop night vision cameras, photography, and video that would be sensitive to the infrared light given off by body heat.

At first blush, Sternglass’ findings might seem like just a military curiosity, hardly worthy of reaching out to the architect of space-time itself. But Einstein had won his Nobel Prize for a theory explaining a phenomenon related to the Navy research: the ejection of electrons from a metal illuminated by a beam of ultraviolet light, a process called the photoelectric effect. Sternglass had begun to suspect that the theory that explained his process—called secondary electron emission—was simply wrong. “Here I was, in my early 20s,” Sternglass writes in his 1997 memoir Before the Big Bang, “without any advanced education in physics, about to ask the most renowned scientist in the world since Newton what he thought about my ideas.”

The two, at Einstein’s invitation, walked out to the backyard at 112 Mercer Street. Einstein cherished the opportunity to stroll with guests through his modest but beloved gardens. Sternglass found a point of commonality with his host. “We had a small garden in the suburb of Berlin where my father had built a summer home,” Sternglass recalls. Both men were also native Jewish Germans who had escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when there was still a chance to flee. Einstein cancelled his appointments for the rest of the afternoon.

Sternglass explained to Einstein how the latest theory of secondary electron emission was, ironically, too much like Einstein’s own model of the photoelectric effect. Einstein’s photoelectric theory considered just the outermost electrons in an atom, furthest from the nucleus. This was a safe assumption, and one borne out by today’s science. But an electron and a photon are different things. Electrons can pack more of a punch than UV light, and therefore can penetrate deeper into the atom. So every electron orbiting the atom has to be accounted for in a realistic theory of secondary electron emission, Sternglass said. “That sounds reasonable to me,” was Einstein’s reply.

The conversation moved on to something near to Sternglass’ heart: nuclear particles, and in particular, the neutron. Neutrons are agents of transmutation: They can transform one element of the periodic table into another. It was known at the time that the proton and neutron, which sit snugly next to each other in an atom’s nucleus, could transform into one another if paired with an electron. In this way, one could add a neutron to a stable isotope of carbon (with, say, six protons and seven neutrons in its nucleus) to create the unstable isotope, carbon-14, which has six protons and eight neutrons. After a while (on average 5,730 years), carbon-14 spits out an electron to make a stable isotope of nitrogen, with seven protons and seven neutrons. Here, then, was another connection to Einstein: Isaac Newton, whose laws of physics Einstein showed to be incomplete, was obsessed with the transmutation of elements (a part of the ancient tradition of alchemy), and kept one of the largest alchemical libraries of his time.

Sternglass had worked with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and had arrived at solutions to its equations that depicted stable, orbiting configurations of an electron and its antimatter counterpart, the positron. He interpreted these orbiting pairs as being equivalent to protons and neutrons. Today we understand these models to be creatively fascinating, but also incorrect (quarks make up protons and neutrons).

Nevertheless, it led Sternglass toward a crucial hypothesis. If neutrons and protons are indeed nuclear cousins differing in their makeup by just one electron, as Sternglass’ model suggested, then there could be a backdoor way of making neutrons out of protons and electrons. Einstein, too, had been wrestling with the nature of the electron, which leaves behind just two photons after colliding with its antimatter counterpart, and not a bestiary of particles like the one resulting from a proton-neutron collision. Was the electron a breed apart?

Within a few years, Sternglass would be colliding electrons with protons at energies too low to be considered interesting, and reporting some surprising results back to his mentor in Princeton. Einstein, for his part, saw promise in the young engineer. His parting advice was surprising: “Don’t do what I have done,” Einstein told Sternglass. “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 universe every day.” ...


The full article appears in the Winter 2014 Nautilus QuarterlySubscribe today! 

Mark Anderson is a science and technology journalist who has written for Discover, Technology Review, Scientific American, Science, Wired, IEEE Spectrum, New Scientist, and Rolling Stone. 


Albert Einstein’s letters (written in German) to Ernest Sternglass were translated into English for this article by Hans-Jochen Trost.
For more information on the Widom-Larsen theory and low-energy nuclear reactions, see the newsletter New Energy Times.


Thanks to Ephraim Fischbach for his expertise on this article’s technical aspects.

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