"Supernovae, an alpine climb and space travel."

(A contribution to the 100'th birthday of Fritz Zwicky)"

Oliver Knill, 14. July 1998

In Deutsch Deutsche Übersetzung.

An attraction for genius

Fritz Zwicky House,
where the Zwickis lived in Glarus Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974), whose 100'th birthday would have been celebrated in 1998, is considered both as one of the most brilliant astrophysisist as well as one of the most unusual personalities in the 20'th century. The Swiss citizen Zwicky was born the 14'th of February 1898 in Varna in Bulgary and grew up in Mollis im a Swiss village in the Canton of Glarus . (A 'Canton' in Switzerland is the equivalent of a 'state' in the United States).
Zwicki's study years at the ETH in Zürich are characterized by an admiration for genius teachers. At the end of his studies in the field of physics he wrote his diploma thesis (this corresponds to a "honors theses" at US universities but is mandatory and often serious research), under the guidance of the Mathematician Herman Weyl Herman Weyl (1885-1955) . During his studies at the ETH, Zwicky was particularly impressed by his physics teacher Auguste Piccard (1884-1962) . After a dissertation in the year 1922 under the guidance of the later chemistry Nobel prize winner (1936) ) Peter Debye Peter Debye (1884-1966) and correferee Paul Scherrer (1890-1969) (the confounder of the Cern), he was taken to Caltech by Millikan. Zwicky would stay for a long time at Caltech. He had also regular contacts with Albert Einstein. This, as well as the fact that Einstein was teaching at the ETH, while Zwicky was studying there, were the reasons that he was sometimes introduced as a "student of Einstein" in the USA. Zwicky's weakness for geniuses becomes evident especially in his book "Everybody a genius". This title is in contrast to the Dilbert's principle: "We are all idiots". But the reader of the book will be amused to find it more or less a predecessor of the Dilbert principle.

Teasing with Millikan

Millikan Zwicky has been called to Caltech in 1925 by Millikan Fountain at Caltech near Millikan library Millikan, (1868-1953) who got in 1923 the nobel prize for his work on the electric elementary charge with the ( Millikan oil experiment ) expected from Zwicky first rank theoretical research in the topic of quantum mechanics of atoms and metals. During the 20ies and 30ies, Zwicky got attracted more and more by astrophysics. According to one of the many annectotes told about Zwicky, there is the story that Zwicky had accused Millikan that he, (Millikan) never ever had a good idea. Millikan reportedly had replied: "Well, good, young man, and what about you?" Zwicky: "I have a good idea every two years. Give me a topic, I will give you the idea!". Hereafter, Millikan should have asked Zwicky spontaneously to try it in astrophysics (source: Wild). Indeed, Caltech needed astrophysists at that time because it was busy building the Mount Palomar observatory.
Zwicky explaining mimic During the thirties and forties, many of Zwicky's colleagues thought of Zwicky as a "big mouth", but later generations of astrophysisics should think of him as a creative genius (Thorne). Aversions against Zwicky's habit, "to call the child by the name" and to consider "humbleness as a lie" survive until now. In the history of the Wilson observatory or many textbook in astronomy, one looks in vain for the names Zwicky or Baade. One of the reasons might be that the rather stubborn Zwicky kept his Swiss citizenship at all times, evenso he had lived for more than 40 years in the US. (Source Wild).

A ski ramp near the observatory

From the campus of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena one can see at good weather and clear view the Mount Wilson . On this mountain near Pasadena, Caltech maintains until this day an observatory. From Pasadena, one can drive by car in a half an hour to the top of the mountain. This beautiful mountain road is called the Crest Highway. It passes through a place which forms in the summer a cool oasis in the north of the dry Mojave desert and to the south of the Los Angeles metropolis. Coming from Glarus in Switzerland which has plenty of mountains, Zwicky liked this place in the Californian St Gabriel mountains not only to work. As a passionate climber, he liked the mountains. In the winter, he often would take his skies to his work place in order to jump on a self built ramp near the telescope.

The mountain and the big bang

Mount Baldi

From the scientific point of view, the Mount Wilson is an important place:
  • Michelson In 1878 the physicist and later Nobel prize winner A. Michelson (1852-1931) measured there the speed of light. He did that by sending a light-ray from the Mount Wilson onto a mirror located on Mount Baldy 20 miles away and measured the time, the light ray would need to return back. (A short biography of Michelson. In 1920, Michelson could for the first time measure on the Mount Wilson the diameter of an other star with this interferometer. The star was the Beteigeuze in shoulder of Orion ). Michelson died in 1931 in Pasadena.

    Orion Beteigeuze
  • Hale George Ellery Hale (1868-1938), der founder of the Mount Wilson observatory, has made there in the year 1908 the discovery that sun spots have strong magnetic fields. This was for the first time that magnetic fields had been measured outside the earth. 100 Inch Telescope
  • During 1917-1947 the 100 inch teleskop on the Mount Wilson has been the world largest telescop. It was used by Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) to measure the distance and velocity of galaxies. This has lead to the insight that our universe expands and that all started 15-20 Billion years ago with a 'big bang'.
A virtual tour through the observatory is possible on the internet.

Spherical bastards and a gun shot

Many annectotes exist about Zwicky:
  • In the halls of the Physics building at Caltech, Zwicky used to start a conversation to students, whose name he did not know with the words: "Who the devil are you?". Whether this is the reason that physics students, traumatized like this, were later not becoming Zwicky fans can only be conjectured. In the bestseller book "Black Holes & Time Warps" by Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, Zwicky does not appear in a very favorable way.
  • Zwicky used to call other astronomers at the Mount Wilson observatory "Spherical bastards". Why spherical? "Because they were bastards, when looked at from any side". Even so Zwicky was well known for his rough language, things could become embarrassing: at the University of Texas in Austin one tells the story, that the Zwicky's were once inviting some graduate students for dinner. As the group was ringing the door bell, Zwicki's wife Dorothea opened and called into the house without intending to joke: "Fritz, the bastards are here!". The expression has become a normality in Zwicky's house.
  • Zwicky was well known for getting up during talks in order to tell the speaker that the topic in question has already been solved, namely by Zwicky. Zwicky was sensitive on questions in priority and sometimes not without reason. He did not speak well of Robert Oppenheimer, who has further developed the theory of the Neutron stars (Zwicky's "baby") and who later would play an important role in the Manhattan project of the US military.
  • Zwicky
at the Telescope During an observation night at the Mount Wilson, when the turbulences of the air were disturbing, Zwicky has told his assistant to shoot with the gun into the turbulent air. His hope was that the bullet would smooth the turbulences. The gun was indeed shot but the turbulences stayed... This story illustrates that Zwicky was ready to try unusual ways for solutions.
  • Zwicky has dealt critically with religion during his whole life. (Source: "Everybody a genius"). In a diary entry of 1971, he writes "To base the unexplainabilty and the immense wonder of nature onto an other miracle God is unnecessary and not acceptable for any serious thinker". According to a story, Zwicky should once have discussed with with priest about the beginning of the universe. As the priest said that the universe started with "And there is light" Zwicky replied that he would buy this if it would be changed to "and there is electromagnetism". (source: Caltech web) .

The antipodes Zwicky and Baade

Walter Baade Walter Baade (1893-1960) was a German astronomer who came at the beginning of the thirties from Hamburg and Göttingen to Pasadena in order to make observations at the Mount Wilson observatory. Baade was a brilliant astronomer with an Enzyklopedic knowledge. His character was rather the opposite of the stormy Zwicky. The antipodes Zwicky and Baade attracted each other however soon, each recognizing the qualities of the other. One has seen in these years Zwicky and Baade often in Pasadena to talk in an animated way about "Novae". Novae are newly appearing stars, which can suddenly become 10000 times stronger as before and whose brightness then return to a normal value in about a month. There were indications about exceptionally bright Novae which appeared in certain nebulae. During the 20'th, astrophysicists began to suspect that these nebulae were not gas nebulae from the milky way but galaxies themselves, immense accumulations of billions of stars. According to Baade's calculations, such novae would be million times stronger than the sun.

The discovery of Neutron stars

With his attraction for the extreme, Zwicky was fascinated by Novae. Together with Baade, he called the phenomenon "Supernovae". They predicted that these Supernovae would be created by explosions of normal stars. To explain this, Zwicky invented the neutron star. By accident, the neutron just has been found at the time, when Zwicky and Baade were working on the explanation of Supernovae. The neutron was exactly, what Zwicky needed. Maybe, a normal star could implode until it reaches the density of a nucleus? Zwicky called the corresponding neutron gas a "neutron star". The released energy from the implosion would give the explosive energy and would be enough to explain the Supernovae. At this time, one was also beginning to find the origin of the cosmic Gamma ray radiation with which the earth is bombarded from space. Millikan was an expert in this field. Zwicky convinced himself that most of this cosmic radiation would come from Supernovae. In the year 1934, Zwicky and Baade presented their work "Supernovae and Cosmic Rays" in Stanford. It is considered as one of the far reaching works in the history of physics and astronomy. (citing Thorne).

Modern problems

The story about the discovery of neutron stars is exemplary. Today, 60 years after finding neutron stars, astrophysicists still look for and find new kind of stars. In may 1998, such an event happened, when magnetars were discovered. Magnetars are neutronstars with the strongest magnetic fields known. These stars were theoretically predicted in 1992 by Duncan and Thomson Observations from this year confirm now this theory, even so the experts have for a long time laughted about such ideas.
Fritz Zwicky mentioned in the year 1933, that rich galaxies have 10 to 100 times the visible mass in order that they can be hold together . The reason for this dark matter is still today a mystery.

Travel to the solar system Alpha Centauri

Zwicky developed phantastic science fiction ideas which do not stand back to some ideas of Jules Vernes.
  • In the year 1948, Zwicky suggested to use extraterrestrial sources to reconstruct the universe. This should begin with changing other planets, moons and asteroids by making them inhabitable and to change their orbits around the sun in order to adjust their temperature. (source).
  • In the sixties, Zwicky had the idea to influence the fission mechanism in the sun through bombardment from the earth. The aim was to change the path of the sun and so the whole solar system. He wrote that it should be possible like this to travel to other stars, for example to the neighbor star-system Alpha Centauri - during a 2500 year long travel. (For more details on this see the separate essay).
More humble versions of such fantastic gigantism could maybe become possible some day. In the year 1961 for example, Carl Sagan (1934-1996) ( (info) ) the author of the story "Contact" leading to the movie "Contact" and a popular astrophysicist) has suggested, to shoot algae colonies into the atmosphere of Venus in order to diminish the CO 2 concentration on that planet. This would make the planet inhabitable later. In the year 1963, Dandridge Cole has suggested to cave out an elliptic asteroid of 30 km length and to spin it around its long axes to simulate gravitation and to use mirrors to brighten the interior. This could be used as a space station.

Morphologie: a bag of tricks to collect ideas

"Morphology" is a method of thinking which has been introduced by Zwicky. One of the ideas of morphology is to systematically search for a solution of a problem by trying out all combinations in a matrix of expressions. The matrix is called a 'morphologic box'. The fact that the search will also reveal unusual or even crazy combinations, is one of the basic ingredients of creativity. In the case of chess for example it was a surprise that a mostly computerized search of good solutions can lead to creative chess play. This went so far that Garry Kasparov accused the team behind the computer Deep Blue of fraud after a lost game.
Zwicky has used the morphologie in his research as well as in the industry as a consultant to the company "Aerojet". As an illustration who Zwicky might have come to ideas, the reader can try the method him/herself. Find all combinations in the following matrix:

sun moon earth
bullet rocket bomb
solar system space travel outer space

Trying all combinations leads to crazy ideas like for example a new kind of space travel, where the sun is used as a rocket or the idea to shoot onto the moon or the idea to build shoot through the earth for travel reasons. These three ideas actually have been proposed by Zwicky.
Morphology has been popular in management for some time. for example at the Ciba (Now innovag) . The method has however also disadvantages and can be too slow. A story illustrating this as well as a critics of Bruno Stanek can be found in Müller's book on Zwicky.

Lenin and Zwicky as neighbors

In the Zwicky biographie of Müller is asked the question weather it has been Lenin, who has been living in Zürich door to door with Zwicky at the Spiegelgasse, who has given the initial idea of Morphology to Zwicky. According to Zwicky's friend Albert Wilson, there was a climate of tolerance in Zürich at the beginning of the 20'th century which has allowed to grow new ideas. Examples like Lenin, Einstein, C.G. Jung , Trotsky or Zwicky should prove this. (source Müller). Whether Lenin had any influence on Zwicky is doubtful because Zwicky has been a firm anti-communist as a student even to leave his studies for some time to work as a political secretary in one of himself founded organization to fight the 'communistic agitators'. Zwicky's teachers at the Poly (jargon for the ETH Zürich ) were probably more important for his later reflections about thinking. Zwicky has heard lectures from outstanding Mathematicians like Weyl, Grossmann, Polya or Hurwitz. Polya shows in his famous booklet on "solving mathematical problems" that one has thought at the ETH about the mechanisms of creativity.

Artificial meteors

Besides his work at Caltech, Zwicky was also working in the Californian rocket factory 'Aerojet'. According to Reichstein, this second engagement was a welcome opportunity for Zwicky to disappear from Campus, in case the air should get there "too thick".
Zwicky was proud of having contributed essentially to the 1957 shot of the first human bullet into space, an object manufactured on earth which should leave the gravity of earth for ever. These experiments were done with German V2 rockets, which when reaching the highest point would shoot a bullet away. These experiments with 'artificial meteors' have begun shortly after world war II and were first unsuccessful. When it finally worked 10 years later, they were shadowed by far more important developments: Sputnik had been launched into an earth orbit. The aftershock of this event produced an intense research activity in the US, from which Zwicky has been completely rolled over. He seems to have minded quite a bit that the later developments in astronautics have been achieved without him. An indication of this is that the first step of humans on the moon have not even been mentioned in the diaries of Zwicky.

First climb of the Glärnisch north wall

Thadeus Reichstein Zwicky mit Hendricks 
in den kanadischen Rockies 1931 Having been grown up the mountains of Glarus, Zwicky got acquainted in a natural way to mountain climbing. Also during his study times at the ETH he went with his fried Thadeus Reichstein (1897-1996) to the mountains. (Reichstein should later get the Nobel prize in Medicine together with Philip S. Hench and Edward C. Kendall about the discovery of the Cortisone. Reichstein has also first synthesized the vitamins C and like this led the foundations for an industrial production of this Vitamin.)
The mountain-team Reichstein-Zwicky has o opened some new climbing routes in the Alps. Some of them have entered the club guides of the Swiss Alp club (SAC). In the year 1924 for example, the duo was climbing the "Glärnisch Nordwand". When Zwicky got in 1925 the Rockefeller fellowship to pursue his postdoctoral studies in the US he chose the Caltech in Pasadena. It is told that he should have given as the reason for this choice: "because there are mountains there".
Some reasoning of Zwicky about the question why people go climbing shows some originality and (typically Zwicky) does not hide the awareness of its originality.

"Non-alpinists again and again asked, why we run up the mountains like mad. Many answers have been given to this question: the greatness of nature, to use the forces of the body, to run away from the daily life or the joy of the adventure (Schiller: "Und setzest Du nicht das Leben ein, nie wird Dir das Leben gewonnen sein") ("If you don't risk your life, you will never win the life") and so on. But never, I heard the answer which applied to me and my mountain friend Reichstein from the university of Basel, which is: "In daily life, as well as in science, one finds almost never problems, which one can solve alone, complete and in a short time. Also if one tackles them successfully, there are always new aspects popping up, which occupy us for a long time, sometimes for our whole life. We are eager therefore to pursue achievements, which can be closed as a masterpiece, which can be done alone and which nobody will question. The climb of a new mountain or a new difficult path in the mountains is such an achievement".

Ski world champion Rösli Streiff

Roesli Streiff During decades, Zwicky has kept correspondence with Rösli Streiff (the world champion in Slalom skiing in 1932.) Some of the letters are reproduced in Müller's biographie. They tell a lot about the life and the thinking of Zwicky during that time. The correspondence with Streiff unfortunately ends in 1947, when Zwicky married the second time.
A section from one of the last letters to Streiff indicates a for Zwicky stressful time in 1946, while Zwicky was still living divorced:
"Many thanks for all your kind letters. I never managed to write with such easynes. I have now even problems to use the pen. You can not expect from me much in this respect. Every evening, I come home tired and have just enough energy to fill out the endless tax forms, to pay bills, not to let my house neglected and to hear the radio concert for an hour. Not even a newspaper, I have, except the Swiss-American, which comes once a week. Mountains were once my big adventure but is is over since a long time; I still dream from the wonderful days sometimes, read also a few pages from a mountain book. But the thought of doing again active mountain climbing has faded."

Zwicky met his second wife in the spring of 1947 in Thun (Switzerland). Also after his retirement in the year 1968 they both lived in Pasadena, spending longer times in Gümligen.

Zwicky died in 1974 in Pasadena. His grave is in Mollis.


  • Roland Müller, Fritz Zwicky, Leben und Werk des grossen Astrophysikers, Raketenforschers und Morphologen, Verlag Baeschlin, Glarus, 1986
  • Fritz Zwicky, Jeder ein Genie, Verlag Baeschlin, Glarus, 1971, 2. (reprint) Auflage, 1992
  • Fritz Zwicky, Entdecken, Erfinden, Forschen im Morphologischen Weltbild, Verlag Baeschlin, Glarus, 1966, 2. (reprint) Auflage 1989
  • Paul Wild, Fritz Zwicky, in "Morphological Cosmology", Lecture Notes in Physics, Volume 332, p. 391-398
  • K.S. Thorne, Black Holes and Time Warps, W.W. Norton Company, 1994
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