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Fritz Zwicky: an overlooked Swiss genius

Fritz Zwicky looking into space using the then brand-new Schmidt telescope in 1936.
Fritz Zwicky looking into space using the then brand-new Schmidt telescope in 1936. Archive Palomar Conservatory/Caltech

Fritz Zwicky, who came from canton Glarus in eastern Switzerland, was one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. The story of an overlooked genius.

SWI regularly publishes articles on historical topics curated directly from the Swiss National Museum’s blog pageExternal link (available in German and often French and English).

If Fritz Zwicky’s father Fridolin had got his way, the young Fritz – who was born on 14 February 1898 in the Bulgarian city of Varna – would have taken over the family textile business in Bulgaria. Fridolin Zwicky had emigrated from Mollis in canton Glarus to the Black Sea, where he was a merchant, selling items such as Glarner Tüechli (traditional paisley scarves from Glarus). But things turned out differently.

At the tender age of six, Fritz’s parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Switzerland, so that he could attend school there. It quickly became clear that the young man would never become a textile merchant.

Instead, he turned to science. Fritz Zwicky went on to study mathematics and experimental physics at the Swiss federal technology institute ETH Zurich. Throughout his life, he was never an easy person to deal with and would frequently exasperate his lecturers with his arrogant and abrasive behaviour. Completing his doctorate in natural sciences at ETH Zurich in 1922 marked the beginning of his long scientific journey.

Report on Fritz Zwicky (Youtube)

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In 1925, at the age of 27, he emigrated to the United States, as he had been invited by the renowned California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to conduct research and work there. He regularly shook up and galvanised the science community, for example, with the discovery of dark matterExternal link and his theory on exploding stars, known as supernovaeExternal link, which he developed with German astrophysicist Walter Baade.

Zwicky’s ideas repeatedly attracted criticism and were derided by many of his peers. But he stuck to his guns and was right about many things. Even if this was sometimes only proven years or decades later.

Fritz Zwicky in his office in California in 1947.
Fritz Zwicky in his office in California in 1947. ETH Zurich library

After the end of the Second World War, Fritz Zwicky – who was one of the few scientists in the US who spoke German – received a highly sensitive mission. As military advisor, he was to investigate the Nazis’s missile development stations in Peenemünde and on the island of Usedom in northern Germany. The Americans were keen to catch up with the German technology as soon as possible as the German V2 rockets were better than anything the US had developed at that point. Fritz Zwicky later travelled to Japan to study the impact of the atomic bombs dropped there by the Americans, and was deeply disturbed by the destructive power of the bombs.

But rocket technology continued to fascinate him. The scientist was convinced that the Earth’s gravity could be overcome and to prove it, he wanted to fire an object into space. The test launched in December 1946 and a rocket was fired with six rifle grenades in the head. The grenades were meant to subsequently detonate so that the pellets would be fired into space, beyond the pull of gravity. But the test was unsuccessful as the grenades failed to ignite.

As the US would not provide Zwicky with any more rockets due to cost considerations, he had to abandon this project, although he was convinced that his idea would work. Considered an eccentric, the astrophysicist lived an increasingly isolated existence. He was shunned and underestimated by many of his peers, and his ideas were frequently dismissed. Furthermore, rockets and bombs were quickly consigned to the past in the 1950s as the war was over and people wanted to move on and enjoy their rising living standards.

But all that changed on 4 October 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit, taking the US by surprise.

TV report on the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 (Youtube).

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The issues of space and rockets were back on the political agenda and Fritz Zwicky was suddenly in demand again. He was reappointed as a military advisor and all of a sudden test rockets became readily available, as in the eyes of the US, the space race had to be won at all costs.

Just 12 days after the launch of Sputnik 1, Fritz Zwicky fired the first artificial object Artificial Planet No. Zero, an aluminium pellet, into space, and was therefore able to finish what he started in 1946.

And Zwicky had already mapped out the next steps in his head: “First we throw something little into the skies. Then a shipload of instruments, then finally ourselves.” He was right, and his theories and analyses played a part in this important chapter of humanity’s forays into space

‘Earth’s gravity finally beaten’ wrote the daily paper fromRochester on 23 November 1957.
‘Earth’s gravity finally beaten’ wrote the daily paper from Rochester, US, on November 23, 1957.

Fritz Zwicky died in 1974 in Pasadena, California, and was buried in his hometown of Mollis in the Swiss canton of Glarus. The list of his discoveries and ideas is long, and there’s not enough space here to mention them all. One thing’s for sure, though: Fritz Zwicky was one of the greatest astrophysicists of the 20th century. He also remains one of the most underappreciated scientists in the world.

This article was originally published in English on the blog of the Swiss National Museum.External link

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR