Ernst Zinner

1937 – 2015

    Ernst K. Zinner, Research Professor Emeritus in the Physics Department and the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, died on July 30, 2015 from complications of mantle cell lymphoma. He was born January 30, 1937 in St. Peter in der Au, Austria, a small medieval town about 100 miles west of Vienna. He attended the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, graduating as a Diplom-Ingenieur in Physics in 1960.

    After working as a programmer in Switzerland for a number of years, he moved to Washington University in St. Louis and received his Ph.D. in high-energy physics in 1972. His thesis work in experimental particle physics involved understanding aspects of the K+  °  µ+  decay.

After obtaining his Ph.D., Ernst joined the Laboratory for Space Sciences, a part of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University, where he spent the remainder of his career, before retiring in early 2015. Initially he worked on the effects of the interplanetary environment on the moon and meteoritic parent bodies, studying nuclear particle tracks, solar wind implanted elements and micrometeoroid craters to understand the thermal histories, exposure ages and radiation environments of these materials. He was also the team leader of the LDEF interplanetary dust experiment, which was launched in April 1984 and retrieved in January 1990, an international effort involving Washington University, NASA Johnson Space Center, the Max-Planck-Institut of Heidelberg and the University of Munich.

    Out of this early work came an appreciation of the need for new and better micro-analytical methods in the spaces sciences, and in the mid-1970s Ernst turned his attention to secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), a new technology that, at the time, showed more potential than promise. Years of determined and persistent development work paid off with important contributions to many areas of cosmochemistry, including the study of interplanetary dust particles, refractory inclusions in meteorites and the abundances of short-lived radionuclides in the early solar system, and ultimately led to the emergence of a new field of study, the laboratory analysis of stardust (grains that condensed in the expanding atmospheres and explosive ejecta of dying stars). His work resulted in over 230 peer-reviewed publications, including several important review papers covering presolar grain research; a complete list of his publications can be found here.

    In recent years Ernst’s research interests centered on the study of presolar grains that condensed in the expanding atmospheres and the explosive ejecta of stars and survived the formation of the solar system. These grains provide a record of the nucleosynthesis of elements in stars. Ion microprobe analysis has played an exceedingly important role in the study of these objects. However, he also recognized the importance of theoretical modeling for understanding nucleosynthetic processes, and was a key figure in establishing collaborations between experimentalists and theoreticians.

    Ernst’s scientific interests led to numerous collaborations, both nationally and internationally. He held visiting appointments at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik, Heidelberg, Germany, (1980), Technical University of Vienna (1980-1982), University of Pavia, Italy (1989), University of Bern, Switzerland (1994), the Australian National University, Canberra, (1995, 2002), the Max-Planck-Institut für Kosmochemie, Mainz, Germany (1980, 2001, 2003, 2004), the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France (2006), the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington (2010), the University of Perugia (2011) and the University of Grenada (2013). He leaves behind a substantial legacy: many of the SIMS laboratories in the world are headed by former students and post-docs, who learned their ion probe skills under the tutelage of Ernst.

    Ernst received numerous prestigious awards over the years, including:

  1. Venia Legendi, Technical University Vienna, Austria (1985)

  2. Antarctic Service Medal of the National Science Foundation (1987)

  3. Fellow of the Meteoritical Society (1988)

  4. Fellow of the American Physical Society (1991)

  5. J. Lawrence Smith Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (1997)

  6. Leonard Medal of the Meteoritical Society (1997)

  7. Geochemistry Fellow of the Geochemical Society and the European Association for Geochemistry (1998)

  8. Fellow of the European Association for Geochemistry (1998)

  9. Corresponding Member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (2002)

  10. Merle A. Tuve Fellow, Carnegie Institution of Washington (2010)

  11. Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011)

Ernst, more than any other one person, was responsible for putting the ion microprobe technique on a solid and credible footing. His numerous accomplishments and his impact on the fields of cosmochemistry and astrophysics were celebrated at the Zinner Impact Symposium, held at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007. The Washington University Record obituary can be found here.


Articles in the Washington University Record:

Obituary: Ernst K. Zinner, astrophysicist and cosmochemist, 78; August 2015

Japanese film crew talks stardust with physicists; September 2014

Grains of sand from ancient supernova found in meteorites; April 2013

Hands-on astronomy; January 2012

$1.38 million to pick ‘large’ pieces of supernova grit out of meteorite; December 2011

Lodge, Zinner named fellows of AAAS; December 2011

Apollo 11 moon rocks still crucial 40 years later, say WUSTL researchers; July 2009

Physicist to be recognized for helping 'revolutionize astronomy'; January 2007

'Real' stardust from NASA mission lands on campus; January 2007

Washington University lab first to find 'real' stardust from Stardust mission; December 2006

Scientists hope comet dust will give numerous insights; March 2006

First silicate stardust in a meteorite found; March 2004

First silicate stardust found in a meteorite. Grains from a most primitive meteorite; April 2004

NanoSIMS. Ion microprobe opens doors for possibilities; March 2002

Ernst K. Zinner, Ph.D., a pioneer in the analysis of stellar dust grains in primitive meteorites; February 1999

Microprobe coming to McDonnell Center. One-of-a-kind instrument helps analyze cosmic dust; October 1998

Physicist Ernst Zinner receives two prestigious honors; May 1997

Zinner traces the stellar origins of 'stardust'; October 1996

Conference addresses study of presolar grains; October 1996

Aqueous processes on planetary bodies began earlier than reported; March 1996

Sources of 'stardust' found by researchers; February 1996