Steinberger was born in the city of Bad Kissingen in Bavaria, Germany, in 1921. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany, with its open anti-Semitism, prompted his parents to send him out of the country.
Steinberger emigrated to the United States at the age of 13, making the trans-Atlantic trip with his brother Herbert. Barnett Farroll cared for him as a foster child, the connection was made by Jewish charities in the United States. During this period, Steinberger attended New Trier Township High School, in Winnetka, Illinois.
Steinberger obtained a bachelor's degree in Chemistry from the University of Chicago, in 1942. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Signal Corps at MIT. With the help of the G.I. Bill, he returned to graduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1946, where he studied under Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi. His Ph.D. thesis concerned the energy spectrum of electrons emitted in muon decay; his results showed that this was a three-body decay, and implied the participation of two neutral particle in the decay (later idenfified as the electron and muon neutrinos).
After receiving his doctorate, Steinberger attended the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for a year. In 1949 he published a calculation of the lifetime of the neutral pion, which anticipated the study of anomalies in quantum field theory.
Following Princeton, Steinberger went to the Radiation Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, where he performed an experiment which demonstrated the production of neutral pions and their decay to photon pairs. This experiment utilized the 330 MeV synchrotron and the newly-invented scintillation counters. Despite this and other achievements, he was asked to leave the Radiation Lab at Berekely due to his refusal to sign the so-called Non-Communist Oath.
Steinberger accepted a faculty position at Columbia in 1950. The newly commissioned meson beam at Nevis Labs provided the tool for several important experiments. Measurements of the production cross section of pions on various nuclear targets showed that the pion has odd parity. A direct measurement of the production of pions on a liquid hydrogen target, then not a common tool, provided the data needed to show that the pion has spin zero. The same target was used to observe the relative rare decay of neutral pions to a photon, an electron and a positron. A related experiment measured the mass difference between the charged and neutral pions based on the angular correlation between the neutral pions produced when the negative pion is captured by the proton in the hydrogen nucleus. Other important experiments studied the angular correlation between electron-positron pairs in neutral pion decays, and established the rare decay of a charged pion to an electron and neutrino; the latter required use of a liquid-hydrogen bubble chamber.
In 1954-5, Steinberger contributed to the development of the bubble chamber with the construction of a 15 cm device for use with the Cosmotron at Brookhaven. The experiment used a pion beam to produce pairs of hadrons with strange quarks in order to elucidate the puzzling production and decay properties of these particles. Somewhat later, in 1956, a 30 cm chamber outfitted with three cameras was used in the discovery of the neutral Sigma hyperon and a measurement of its mass. This observation was important for confirming the existence of the SU(3) flavor symmetry which hypothesizes the existence of the strange quark.
An important characteristic of the weak interaction is its violation of parity symmetry. This characteristic was established through the measurement of the spins and parities of many hyperons. Steinberger and his collaborators contributed several such measurements using large (75 cm) liquid-hydrogen bubble chambers and separated hadron beams at Brookhaven. One example is the measurement of the invariant mass distribution of electron-positron pairs produced in the decay of Sigma-zero hyperons to Lambda-zero hyperons.
In the 1960s, the emphasis in the study of the weak interaction shifted from strange particles to neutrinos. Steinberger and Schwartz built large spark chambers at Nevis Lab and exposed them in 1961 to neutrinos produced in association with muons in the decays of charged pions and kaons. They used the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) at Brookhaven, and obtained a number of convincing events in which muons were produced, but no electrons. This result, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1988, proved the existence of a type of neutrino associated with the muon, distinct from the neutrino produced in beta decay.
The violation of CP (charge conjugation and parity) was established in the neutral kaon system in 1964. Steinberger recognized that the phenomenological parameter epsilon (ε) which quantifies the degree of CP violation could be measured in interference phenomena. In collaboration with Carlo Rubbia, he performed an experiment while on sabbatical at CERN during 1965 which demonstrated robustly the expected interference effect, and also measured precisely the difference in mass of the short-lived and long-lived neutral kaon masses.
Back in the United States, Steinberger conducted an experiment at Brookhaven to observe CP violation in the semi-leptonic decays of neutral kaons. The charge asymmetry relates directly to the epsilon parameter, which was thereby measured precisely. This experiment also allowed the deduction of the phase of epsilon, and confirmed that CPT is a good symmetry of nature.
In 1968, Steinberg left Columbia University and accepted a position as a department director at CERN. He constructed an experiment there utilizing multi-wire proportional chambers (MWPC), recently invented by Georges Charpak. The MWPC's, augmented by micro-electronic amplifiers, allowed much larger samples of events to be recorded. Several results for neutral kaons were obtained and published in the early 1970's, including the observation of the rare decay of the neutral kaon to a muon pair, the time-dependence of the asymmetry for semi-leptonic decays, and a more precise measurement of the neutral kaon mass difference. A new era in experimental technique was opened.
These new techniques proved crucial for the first demonstration of direct CP-violation. A new experiment NA31 at CERN was built in the early 1980's using the CERN SPS 400 GeV proton synchrotron. Aside from banks of MWPC's and a hadron calorimeter, it featured a liquid-Argon electromagnetic calorimeter with exceptional spatial and energy resolution. NA31 showed that direct CP violation is real.
Jack Steinberger was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1988, for the neutrino beam method and the demonstration of the doublet structure of the leptons through the discovery of the muon neutrino. He shares this prize with Leon M. Lederman and Melvin Schwartz. At the time, all three experimenters were at Columbia University.
The experiment used charged pion beams generated with the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The pions decayed to muons which were detected in front of a steel wall; the neutrinos were detected in spark chambers installed behind the wall. The coincidence of muons and neutrinos demonstrated that a second kind of neutrino was created in association with muons. Subsequent experiments proved this neutrino to be distinct from the first kind (electron-type). Steinberger, Lederman and Schwartz published their work in Physical Review Letters in 1962.