Vision Expert Arthur Ginsberg Has Invented a Better Eye Chart, as Anyone Can Clearly See

updated 03/11/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 01:00AM

Launched on a mission for the Pentagon, the flight of the Discovery space shuttle in January was shrouded in secrecy. But there was at least one onboard experiment that NASA owned up to: a visual test by the Air Force that could spell doom for those old familiar Snellen eye charts—you know, the ones with the big E on top.

What the astronauts tested was a better eye chart developed by USAF Maj. Arthur Ginsberg, 43, director of the Aviation Vision Laboratory at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Ginsberg noted that even jet pilots, all with 20/20 eyesight, did not necessarily see alike. The E chart measures acuity, the ability to identify the smallest objects under high-contrast conditions (black letters against a white background). It says nothing about contrast sensitivity—how a person perceives differing shades of gray.

During the past five years Ginsberg worked out his substitute for the Snellen chart, the vision standard developed in 1862. His chart is made up of rows of circles, some left blank, while others contain rows of bars of varying width, some tilted. The person tested must indicate whether he sees bars in a circle and, if so, in which direction they tilt. Ginsberg's chart thus provides a measure of how a person sees under such real-life conditions as dim lighting or through atmospheric haze, matters of obvious interest to the Air Force and NASA.

Ginsberg lends breathing testimony to the Air Force gung ho recruiting slogan, Aim High. A native of Revere, Mass., he enlisted out of high school, and during his 25 years in service completed all of his higher education, culminating in a Ph.D. in biophysics from England's Cambridge University in 1980. "I've been fortunate in combining my scientific interests with the Air Force's needs; it's been a good marriage," says the major who, in private life, has married twice and has two sons by his first wife.

With the military's blessings, commercial versions of Ginsberg's chart are available to doctors at $400 each. Among its other advantages, Ginsberg points out, the chart can detect vision problems among preschoolers, for whom the alphabet is still a mystery. And he foresees a day when the new design may be SOP for testing motorists—to decide who can drive at night, and who can't.

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