The Brilliant Astronomer Mysteriously Cut Out Of The History Books

“Space is to place as eternity is to time.” —Joseph Joubert

In A Nutshell

In the 1930s, a visionary astronomer named Fritz Zwicky was the first to recognize cosmic rays, dark matter, dwarf galaxies, gravitational lenses, neutron stars, and supernovas. He also had eccentric ideas about colonizing other planets by using nuclear bombs to change their sizes and orbits. However, his colleagues abruptly dismissed most of his theories regardless of whether they made sense or not. Although Zwicky remained friendly with his school’s administrative staff and students, he publicly lashed out at colleagues, which some say cost him his place in history. Zwicky’s daughter, Barbarina, is on a one-woman mission to change what she feels is an unfair perception of her father.

The Whole Bushel

In the 1930s, a visionary astronomer named Fritz Zwicky was the first to recognize cosmic rays, dark matter, dwarf galaxies, gravitational lenses, neutron stars, and supernovas. Probably, his work would have earned just about anyone else worldwide fame and honors from his peers.

Like so many great scientists, he was clearly a man ahead of his time. Although some of his ideas were accepted, his colleagues abruptly dismissed most of his theories regardless of whether they made sense or not. For example, astronomers agreed with his ideas about supernovas, but they thought neutron stars and gravitational lenses were nonsense. However, many of Zwicky’s pioneering theories, including those on neutron stars, were later confirmed by other scientists. It wasn’t until 1967 that astronomers discovered pulsars, which are spinning neutron stars. In 1979, after Zwicky’s death, scientists located the first gravitational lenses.

Although Zwicky went against the theoretical norm in science for his time, he was also regarded as overbearing and abrasive by some of his colleagues. “Astronomers are spherical bastards,” he supposedly said. “No matter how you look at them, they are just bastards.” He lambasted his fellow astronomers, some by name, in an introduction to his published catalog of bright compact galaxies. He accused fellow scientists of stealing his ideas and hiding their mistakes. Supposedly, he even called one associate, Walter Baade, “the Nazi” during World War II.

Jesse Greenstein, former head of the Astronomy Department at Caltech, is on record as saying, “I disliked him as a human being. He was vain and very self-centered. Zwicky had an enormous facility to produce radical new ideas, some of which proved to be correct, but a lot of us wish he had not been so rough in the process.”

Although Zwicky publicly lashed out at colleagues, which some say cost him his place in history, he remained friendly with his school’s administrative staff and students. So it’s unclear if his rancor for his colleagues occurred because they were competitors, because he was frustrated by what he perceived as their unfair treatment and lack of vision, or both.

Like most people who blaze new ground in big ways, he had his share of clunker ideas. For example, he believed we should colonize other planets by using nuclear bombs to change their sizes and orbits. He also wanted to turn the Sun into a giant spaceship through nuclear fusion reactions that would pull Earth along with it. Sounds crazy. Then again, if the future repeats the past, it’s possible the rest of us just haven’t caught up with his thinking. But he did insist that if America didn’t implement some of his wilder ideas, the Russians would. Obviously, that never happened. As brilliant as he was, he made mistakes, too.

Zwicky’s daughter, Barbarina, is on a one-woman mission to change what she feels is an unfair perception of her father. She also wants him to be given his rightful place in scientific history. Some of the quotes attributed to Zwicky about “spherical bastards” and “the Nazi” were printed in Richard Preston’s book, First Light, after Zwicky’s death. Barbarina calls Preston’s description of her father a “vile, slanderous, vicious attack.” She wanted to pursue Preston legally, but found she had no rights to do so. There were several other books that angered her with these types of descriptions. She believes colleagues at Caltech stayed away from Zwicky because they were ashamed, envious, and in awe of him.

Barbarina intends to pass down her crusade against her father’s detractors to her son. But as time goes on, the personality issues are being forgotten in favor of Zwicky’s scientific achievements. Unfortunately, they weren’t always appreciated when he was alive.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
American Museum of Natural History: Fritz Zwicky’s Extraordinary Vision
io9.com: The Astronomer Who Wanted to Rearrange the Solar System, Using Nukes
Discover: The Father of Dark Matter Still Gets No Respect
New Mexico Museum of Space History: Fritz Zwicky
Daytona Beach Morning Journal: He Offers A Look At Future