To a generation of science readers, he is the oddball astronomer who reportedly called a colleague a Nazi, claimed credit for everything that happened in cosmology after Einstein, and assaulted his peers in print and in person.
To Barbarina Zwicky, he is Daddy.
She recently wrote to this magazine, “My family has endured malicious literary assault since my father’s passing, and it has been a laborious effort for me to identify and highlight these individuals for their part in this very painful collusion to dishonor my father.” She once scolded a blogger: “My father’s theories are now being verified as scientific fact so many years after his death. The unbelievable incompetence and ineptitude of his colleagues and their subsequent rage [have] resulted in rabid attempts using literary assault against a decedent.” Before that, she wrote to another magazine: “Fritz Zwicky revealed a genesis of astounding cosmological achievements that still illuminate the scientific world. He was a scientific prophet and the sacrificial lamb for the provincial judgment of his colleagues. His emendation of intellect was such apodictic truth, and his presages were of such advance, that the standard mind only could falter in their presence.” She concluded, “As his youngest daughter, having had great propinquity to his genius, I am his voice against any malevolence, as his voice has been silenced by debt of nature.”
It has been nearly 35 years since that debt came due on February 8, 1974. For more than half the time since her father’s death, Barbarina Zwicky has been his self-appointed advocate. Over the past two decades her one-woman crusade has only gotten busier as more of her father’s ideas have entered the scientific mainstream. Dark matter, the mystery mass that, according to data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, outweighs ordinary atoms by more than five to one: That was Zwicky’s. Gravitational lensing: his too. Neutron stars, supernovas, carpooling: his (partly), his (partly), his (well, sort of).
“They’re eaten up,” Barbarina Zwicky says of her father’s critics. “I mean, they are consumed by him.” And she by them—or, more accurately, by her belief that their ridicule and neglect will rob Fritz Zwicky of his rightful place in history and perhaps render him as invisible as dark matter. Today, though, Barbarina Zwicky has accepted DISCOVER’s invitation, prompted by her letter to the editor, to meet with me to tell her father’s side of the story, or at least—the subjective nature of history being what it is—her side of his side of the story.
But first, some facts.
Fritz Zwicky was born on February 14, 1898, in Varna, Bulgaria, to a Swiss merchant and his Czech wife. When Zwicky was 6 his father sent him to Glarus, the Zwicky clan’s ancestral Swiss canton, to study commerce; over the following two decades his interests shifted to mathematics and physics. In 1925 he used an international fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to travel to Caltech, where he found himself at the center of the universe.
For an astronomer in the 1920s, Pasadena was the place to be. Atop neighboring Mount Wilson, Edwin Hubble was using the most powerful astronomical tool in history, the 100-inch Hooker telescope, to determine that the night sky was teeming with galaxies equal in size and magnitude to our own Milky Way, and that these galaxies appeared to be racing away from us, an indication of an expanding universe. In 1928, Caltech itself received a $6 million pledge from the Rockefeller Foundation to build a telescope with a mirror twice the diameter of the Hooker’s, ensuring that Pasadena would remain the astronomical center of the universe for decades to come.
Zwicky argued that “practically all” galaxies belonged to clusters.
Zwicky wasn’t yet an astronomer; he was a physicist. But then, the late 1920s was also the time to be a physicist. General relativity was only a little more than a decade old, the quantum revolution less than half that. Even as astronomers like Hubble were finding that the universe was not what it appeared to be, physicists were discovering that it didn’t even operate according to the rules we had assumed it did. Zwicky, with characteristic intellectual dexterity, decided he would simply work in both disciplines, and he became Caltech’s first astrophysicist.
Sometimes he looked at the universe through the prism of the physics of the very large. When Einstein wrote that according to general relativity a star could, through its gravitational pull, bend the light of a more distant object, Zwicky noted that the gravitational effect would be more noticeable if the pull were coming from a whole galaxy. While other astronomers, including Hubble, assumed that the distribution of galaxies throughout the universe was more or less uniform, Zwicky argued that “practically all” galaxies belonged to clusters. What’s more, as Zwicky first wrote in a Swiss journal, galaxies in the Coma cluster seemed to be moving in relation to one another at rates that would violate the laws of gravity, unless you posited the mysterious presence of a great deal of Dunkle Materie (or dark matter).
Zwicky was also among the first to view the universe through the prism of the physics of the very small. ?In 1934, only two years after the English physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron, Zwicky and the Mount Wilson astronomer Walter Baade proposed that the explosion of a certain type of star resulted in an ultracompact core of neutrons weighing millions of tons per cubic inch and measuring no more than 60 miles in diameter, and that this kind of explosion was a source of the enigmatic particles from deep space that astronomers called cosmic rays. Because this class of explosion was distinct from the far more frequent and far less bright stellar outburst known as a nova, they said, it deserved a classification all its own: supernova.
Almost at once, and despite the skepticism of his colleagues, Zwicky mounted a search for supernovas. He persuaded Caltech to install an 18-inch Schmidt telescope that became the first astronomical instrument on Mount Palomar, and soon national media were regularly keeping a running tab of how many “star suicides” his survey of the heavens had discovered and how bright they were: 400 to 600 million times as luminous as the sun.
In 1948, just after his 50th birthday, Zwicky delivered the prestigious Oxford University Halley Lecture. He used the occasion to discuss a concept called morphology, which was first adopted for scientific inquiry by Goethe. A problem solver using the morphological method first defines “all of the parameters that might be of importance” and then matches each parameter with every other parameter to produce a matrix containing “all of the potential solutions.”
“I feel,” Zwicky would later write, “that I have finally found the philosopher’s stone.”
He saw now that it was the morphological impulse that had allowed him to arrive at the extreme concepts of the 1930s—neutron stars, galactic gravitational lensing, supernovas. It was morphology that had guided him during the war years, when he was director of research for Aerojet Engineering and helped develop (among numerous other innovations leading to dozens of patents) the engines that allowed jet-assisted takeoff, the ingenious solution to the problem of how to get a plane off the short runway of an aircraft carrier. And it was morphology that would allow Zwicky to aim for the heavens.
“So far we have been just passive observers for thousands of years,” he once said, contrasting that traditional approach with a new one he called “experimental astronomy,” the direct investigation of celestial bodies. “Shoot the moon,” he counseled, and watch the effects through a telescope on Earth. Shoot the atmosphere of Venus—and Mars, too. And not just shoot. Rearrange. Use nuclear energy to flatten mountains on the moon and to alter the orbits of planets. Nudge Mars closer to the sun and see if it becomes habitable. Nudge the sun itself. Send it and all its gravitationally bound bodies, including Earth, toward a star with habitable planets so we might one day colonize other solar systems.