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Nothing but the Facts about Fritz Zwicky

written by: Brian Jones•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 7/18/2009

One of the least known but most prolific astronomers and astrophysicists was Fritz Zwicky. His achievements changed the way we look at the universe and how we get around in it.

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    Born: February 14, 1898

    Birthplace: Varna, Bulgaria

    Credentials: 1922 PhD Mathematics and Physics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology-Zurich

    1925 International Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation

    1925 Research scientist California Institute of Technology

    1942 Professor of Astronomy - Caltech

    Died: February 8, 1974

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    Fritz Zwicky, although not the most well-known scientist of the 20th Century, has made tremendous achievements in the field of astrophysics and astronomy. Zwicky’s discoveries have shaped how we view the universe today. His most notable achievement was the discovery of neutron stars and the supernovae that give them birth. In 1934, working in conjunction with Walter Baade, they first presented their seminal work “Supernovae and Cosmic Rays" at Stanford University, which not only introduced neutron stars and supernovae but submitted that their luminosity from Earth could be used as a measuring tool to determine the distance of other interstellar objects. To complete this extraordinary theory, Zwicky also proposed that the supernovae are the source of the previously observed cosmic rays in the universe.

    The Supernova/Neutron Star/Cosmic Ray discovery was right on the heels of another important discovery in astrophysics. It was in 1933 that Fritz Zwicky, using calculations of the virial theorem, was able to show that there is a large amount of unseen matter in the universe. He was not taken seriously at first, but several decades later, corroborating evidence supported his idea and this matter is now known as “dark matter."

    In order to peer into the vastness of space, Zwicky used the effect of light bending around massive objects, as written about by Einstein to allow clusters of galaxies to act as gravitational lenses. Gravitational lenses can then be used to reconstruct the mass in the area and most notably can also show distribution of dark matter and their use was just one more of Zwicky’s outstanding achievements.

    Zwicky later revealed that in order to make the most of his discoveries, he had devised his own methodology, not used by anyone else before him. This methodology came to be known as General Morphological Analysis which can be used for determining relationships of “multi-dimensional, non-quantifiable, problem complexes."

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    Interesting Facts

    • Fritz Zwicky’s father was the Swiss Ambassador to Norway and was sent to live with his grandparents at six year old.

    • Zwicky originally intended to study commerce but became fascinated by physics early on.

    • Zwicky married Dorothy Gates in 1932, daughter of the wealthy Senator Egbert Gates and it was her money that was responsible for the funding of the Palomar Observatory. They divorced in 1941.

    • Fritz was an avid mountain climber and often left his studies at the observatory to play on the mountain on which it stood.

    • Zwicky holds over 50 patents for jet propulsion systems and is known by some as the “father of the modern jet engine."

    • It is surmised that Zwicky’s name is not as well-known as it probably should be is because he was not liked among his peers and was considered a crude and abrasive person.

    • He once said that the astronomers at the Mt. Wilson Observatory were “spherical bastards" because they remain bastards when looked at from any side.

    • He often interrupted key lectures to tell the speaker that the problem they are investigating had already been solved – by himself!

    • He was, in reality, a humanitarian of the greatest caliber. During WWII he hoarded astronomy texts and scientific books of all types and after the war sent them to European universities whose libraries had been destroyed.

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    ZwickyPlaque at the Zwicky Birthplace
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