Ernst Zinner: WU astrophysicist found fossils older than the solar system | St. Louis Public Radio

Ernst Zinner: WU astrophysicist found fossils older than the solar system

Aug 4, 2015

Ernst K. Zinner, an astrophysicist who spent a distinguished and game-changing career at Washington University -- who, in fact, discovered fossils older than the solar system -- died Thursday, July 30, of complications of mantle cell lymphoma. He was 78 and lived in University City.

Mr. Zinner's interests, his career, the objects of his research, along with his stunning accomplishments, were infinite, as deep and profound as space, aspects of which he knew so well. Although personally modest, his dedication to science was renowned. Colleagues held him in esteem as a brilliant scientist and a nurturing mentor, and as a warm and generous friend.

In an email sent from the Netherlands, where he was attending an astrophysics conference, Mr. Zinner's colleague, Professor Martin H. Israel, wrote, "Zinner was a superb scientist right to the end."  The day he died, a paper on which he was one of the primary authors appeared in the 'Astrophysical Journal.'

"He more than anyone else was responsible for development of the nanosims instrument that enables analysis of isotopic composition of microscopic grains found in meteorites," Israel said.

Christine Floss, research professor in the physics department at Washington University, worked for many years with Mr. Zinner. “He was an amazing guy – incredibly smart and incredibly kind,” she said. Monday evening, she expanded on Israel's note.

Ernst Zinner
Credit Provided by the family

His importance rested on years of research, she said, including two areas of exceptional significance. "First was his work, starting in the mid-1970s on secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), a new technology that, at the time, showed more potential than promise."

Floss said Mr. Zinner dedicated almost a decade to developing reliable results from SIMS. This 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).

These grains provide a record of the nucleosynthesis of elements in stars, and SIMS has played an exceedingly important role in the study of these objects, she said.

"Astronomy and astrophysics usually rely on telescopes," she said, “but Dr. Zinner was working with actual dust grains that formed in stars before our solar system existed. From these grains, Dr. Zinner made important discoveries about the stars, including in particular information about how the elements form in stars.”

His expertise was extraordinarily wide ranging. His page on the Washington University newsroom’s website lists these areas of expertise: Astrophysicsspace physicshigh-energy physics, interplanetary environments primitive meteorites, nuclear particle tracks, interplanetary dust, ion microprobes, presolar grains, meteorites, presolar dust and the solar system.

In 1997 he presented the Godfrey Lecture at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C. The university heralded his talk – called “Fossils Older Than the Sun” -- and proclaimed that Mr. Zinner “astonished the world by discovering non-biological fossil relics that existed even before the Earth came into existence.”

Perhaps, in a more equitable universe, he would have won the Nobel Prize. In fact, Charles Day, editor of the American Institute of Physics magazine, “Physics Today,” predicted he would indeed win the Prize for Chemistry in 2013. Day was wrong.

Although the Nobel Prize was not to be his, other prestigious awards were. According to the Washington University website, Zinner won the J. Lawrence Smith Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, that organization’s highest award in his field, and the Leonard Medal from The Meteoritical Society.

His influence was recognized as well at a conference called “SIMS in the Space Sciences: The Zinner Impact,” conducted at Washington University in 2007. It coincided with Mr. Zinner’s 70th birthday. An international assembly of more than 125 scientists gathered to participate and to applaud Mr. Zinner and his work.


As if to prove that scientists needn’t be one dimensional, he became a man of numerous virtuosities. At 55, he decided to take up the cello when his son Max, at 4 years old, decided to take up the cello. He was described as a skilled photographer and pianist as well as cellist. He was an athlete – a tennis player, a table tennis player, an avid skier and bicycle rider. On top of all that, Dr. Zinner was devotee of classical music, of the opera and the theater, and of literature related to the arts. He was informed on current affairs as well.

Ernst Kunibert Zinner was born in Sankt Peter in der Au, Austria, on Jan. 30, 1937. His father, Kunibert, was a sculptor and an artistic polymath, accomplished in music as well as the visual arts. The son was drawn to science, however, and took his undergraduate degree in physics from the Vienna Technical Institute.

Mr. Zinner came to St. Louis and Washington University for graduate school in the mid-1960s, and took his Ph.D. there in 1972 in high-energy particle physics. Afterward, he joined the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences and worked at the center until he retired early this year. It was there he did the research where, in 1987, he identified for the first time material that pre-dated the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

He was devoted to his wife, Brigitte Wopenka, and to their son, Max, who lives in New York City. Once news of his death spread around last weekend, tributes to Mr. Zinner arrived from scientists around the world.


Maurizio Busso, a physics professor at the University of Perugia in Italy, wrote to his wife,Wopenka: “We were on the verge of communicating officially to Ernst that he would be granted the Honor Degree in Physics by the University of Perugia. We were expecting this as a moment of pleasure to share with him and with you.

“Ernst remains in my heart, in my memory. Even more, he remains as the example of a courage I would like to have, as the courage and love for life that makes this world worth living in.”

A former Washington University colleague, Steve Sutton, senior scientist in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, wrote this: “I first met Ernst around 1970 and interacted with him in various ways on the 4th floor of the physics department building at Washington University until I moved to New York in 1985. One of my fondest memories was assisting him in assembling the Cosmic Ray Experiment for Apollo 17, probably in 1972, which was done in the clean room in the basement of Compton.

“Subsequently, I was there when the first ion probe was delivered and worked with him on analyzing the dust collectors returned by the Space Shuttle from the Long Duration Exposure Facility.

“Ernst was one of the most compelling scientists I have ever met. I learned a tremendous amount from him, particularly about how to conduct scientific research. He was brilliant, an extraordinary repository of knowledge. Just working alongside him in the ion probe lab, you couldn’t help but become excited about the research at hand. His enthusiasm was extremely contagious. When things would go wrong with the instrumentation (and they often did), you would think from his reaction that it was the end of the world. We all appreciated his total commitment to the work.

“Ernst was also a good friend. I will never forget the great table tennis matches we had over the years on the fourth floor, mostly in the hallway but also occasionally in laboratories that had been emptied in preparation for mass spectrometer deliveries. He and I were well matched so it was always good competition and Ernst took these ‘games’ very seriously. Tremendous fun!”

Mr. Zinner died at St. Luke’s Hospital with his wife at his side. He is survived by her and by their son, Max, and numerous relatives in Austria, including all four of his younger siblings. He saw them in May on a final journey. True to his profession, he kept count of his Austrian visitors.  The number came to 61.

His ashes are to be taken to his homeland. A memorial reception will be at the St. Louis Art Museum on Sunday, Aug. 16, from 6 to 10 p.m. An endowed "Ernst Zinner Memorial Cello Scholarship Fund" dedicated to advanced cello students at the Community Music School at Webster University  will be established. Donations can be made at