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The Father of Dark Matter Still Gets No Respect

Little-acknowledged Fritz Zwicky got there first on dark matter, neutron stars, and supernovas.

By Richard Panek
Dec 31, 2008 6:00 AMApr 18, 2023 6:36 PM


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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.

And astronomy, for the morphological method, was only the start. In the years to come Zwicky proposed an engine that would allow vehicles to travel through the earth, perhaps for the purpose of defeating the Soviets in underground warfare. He urged “an overall morphological attack on the problem of smog” in Los Angeles, including a tax on single-passenger cars.

Later on, he vowed to write an autobiography, to which he had already given a title: Operation Lone Wolf. Instead, in 1971 he self-published a Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies. He might have found an academic press willing to publish it—his previous six-volume catalog of galaxies was indispensable—if not for the introduction. In 23 score-settling pages, Zwicky called his colleagues “scatterbrains,” “sycophants and plain thieves” who “have no love for any of the lone wolves who are not fawners and apple polishers,” who “doctor their observational data to hide their shortcomings and to make the majority of the astronomers accept and believe in some of their most prejudicial and erroneous presentations and interpretations of facts,” and who therefore publish “useless trash in the bulging astronomical journals.”

Here was the stuff of campus legend. Furthermore, the February 1974 issue of the Caltech house organ, Engineering and Science, contained a lengthy pursuit of the facts behind one persistent Zwicky rumor. Did his students once bamboozle him by creating the perfect, if fictitious, student—a composite of graduate students who secretly took an undergraduate exam and accomplished the seemingly impossible in a Zwicky course, a grade of A? According to one account, they did, in the third quarter of the 1931–1932 academic year. And they did so, the surviving members of that class variously told the magazine, to counteract Zwicky’s “intense pride in being correct” and to avenge his “intense, almost sadistic pleasure in picking on a hapless student” through “caustic comments as to his mental deficiencies and how easy the problem was.” In a sidebar, the editors noted that they had intended to talk to Zwicky. But on February 8, before they had the chance to get his side of the story, Fritz Zwicky died.

Barbarina Zwicky and I have agreed to meet at the Athenaeum, the legendary faculty club (Einstein stayed here) on the Caltech campus. It is here that her side of her father’s side of the story begins, for it was here, in 1987, that she bought a book at the gift shop, Richard Preston’s First Light, about the 200-inch telescope on Mount Palomar, and started to read the section about her father.

“Zwicky began referring to Baade as ‘the Nazi’....He regarded most of the other Palomar astronomers as fools, and Walter Baade as a cretin....He would swear torrentially at night assistants, using scientific terms laced with obscenities....He referred to Baade and the others as spherical bastards—‘They are spherical,’ he said, ‘because they are bastards every way I look at them.’...Hands shaking, Baade whispered to colleagues that he believed Zwicky was going to murder him.” Never mind that Preston called her father “a true genius.” Fritz Zwicky, he also wrote, was “mad.”

“Just sitting there in the Athenaeum parking lot, I couldn’t believe it. It was the most vile, slanderous, vicious, vicious attack against my father,” Barbarina says now. She has driven us from the Athenaeum to the nearby home of her son’s paternal grandparents, where she has covered the dining room table with photographs, letters, books, pamphlets, and other memorabilia. “Awful, awful, awful.” Twenty years later, her voice still trembles at the memory. “It was the most terrible thing, what this man did.”

She began exploring her legal options. She recalls her lawyer’s warning to her: “?‘You know, they can sue for costs, and that could be $50,000, $100,000.’ That’s fine....No cost to me....I would do it again. It was worth the moral effort. It was the right thing to do, and it was in defense of my father. And I thought it would caution any future authors.” In the end, she learned that “decedents really have no legal rights,” she says. “It’s just a free-for-all where he can be viciously attacked.”

Black Holes and Time Warps, by Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, 1994: “In the 1930s and 1940s, many of Fritz Zwicky’s colleagues regarded him as an irritating buffoon.” The Perfect Machine, by Ronald Florence, 1994: the “spherical bastards” quote again. The Whole Shebang, by Timothy Ferris, 1997: “He touted more goofy notions than his colleagues could abide”; the “spherical bastards” quote yet again. The Extravagant Universe, by Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner, 2002, quoting from memory what Zwicky would say when the two of them had offices down the hall from each other at Caltech: “In 1933, I told those no-good spherical bastards that supernovas make the neutron stars. Now they find these damn pulsars and nobody gives me the credit.”

“I catch what I can,” Barbarina says. “It’s like you have a cockroach.” She begins slapping her hand down on a stack of her father’s files. Slam! Slam! Slam! She slumps. “I have no idea how these people can sleep at night. They’re without conscience.”

Well, not quite. As she says later, “I’m their conscience.” She complained all the way to Washington, D.C., to get the Carnegie Institution to add a portrait of her father to a local exhibit on Pasadena’s role in the history of astronomy. When Vassar College promoted a lecture by billing Vera Rubin, one of the pioneering dark matter astronomers of the 1970s, as the “discoverer” of dark matter, Barbarina sent me an e-mail: “I will certainly call my attorney on Monday, and have him write a letter to Ms. Rubin, stating that any and all potential public claims to my father’s work will be equally publicly challenged by me.”

When Barbarina heard that a certain astronomer had ended a lecture by repeating some stories about her father, she dropped the astronomer a note. Barbarina paraphrases what she wrote: “You don’t know what I look like. I’m going to be coming to your lecture, and I’m going to listen to your colorful anecdotes and lies about my father, and I’m going to get up and confront you.” She shakes her head. “They don’t think there’s a family behind all of this?”

Among the items she has gathered on the table this morning is a sheaf of letters her father wrote to her at boarding school in Switzerland. In one he asks what she wants for her birthday. In another he inquires after her algebra and geometry studies. A third, on the occasion of her confirmation, is philosophical in tone, a father imparting to his daughter his thinking on what is important in life. The letter draws on the morphological principle that everyone is unique and irreplaceable and advises Barbarina to not be distracted by what others think or do or say, to master the mundane stuff of ordinary life, but to not lose sight of the importance of experiences that might reveal her true genius. He signs the letter affectionately, as he nearly always did in his correspondence with his youngest daughter.

Barbarina says she wishes people would just stick to evidence like this. Yet she herself answers insult with insult—in the course of our three-hour conversation, she variously calls her father’s critics, by name, “a loser,” “a jerk,” “a disgusting thief,” “a big baby.” And she counters hearsay with hearsay. Fritz Zwicky, she says, was “very decent, kind,” a doting father who took her to tea when her mother and two older sisters went shopping, and who used the “spherical” epithet only twice, and even then only regarding Swiss politicians.

“A lot of people don’t know my father was a lot of fun,” she says. “We laughed all the time when we were together.” Sometimes he took her to work with him. “I recall that everyone at Caltech would scatter when Daddy and I would walk down the hallway of the astronomy building,” she says. “These people would scatter.” Out of fear? Respect? No, she says, out of shame, envy, awe. “Mediocrities felt very uncomfortable around him because they knew that they couldn’t meet that standard. It’s like in the light of God—man can’t stand in the light of God, almost. It’s not quite that,” she adds quickly. “Obviously he wasn’t a God figure.” She believes one of his greatest discoveries, though, is: Barbarina, a born-again Christian, says of dark matter, “I think it’s the Lord.”

If my morning with Barbarina convinces me of anything, it is that a daughter’s idealization of her father may be no more objective than everyone else’s demonization. Still, she has a point. Her crusade raises a question that scholars must often confront but readers of popular science rarely get to consider: What effect does personal reputation have on a scientist’s ability to do science?

“He was way ahead of his time,” says University of Chicago theorist Michael Turner, “and if you’re way ahead of your time, you’re a crackpot.” But to his colleagues, Zwicky wasn’t just a crackpot; he was a crackpot with a notorious reputation. Even Zwicky, in an oral history, spoke of his “abrasiveness,” recalling how a colleague once told him he was “treating people too abruptly, too roughly, and it would be better not to be that rough.”

“He would confront them,” Barbarina herself volunteers, regarding her father’s behavior toward colleagues. “?‘Well, this theory is wrong. This is a bunch of crap.’ And they couldn’t stand that.”

Saul Perlmutter, the University of California at Berkeley astrophysicist who 10 years ago was one of the discoverers of dark matter’s even more baffling partner, dark energy, argues that Zwicky’s reputation today might lack historical context. “A lot of the heroes are curmudgeonly characters,” he says. “And there’s a real reason for it. There’s a strong tradition that it’s so hard to tell when people are fudging a result, there are so many ways to not get the right answer, you really have to be tough. You have to give people a hard time.”

But did Zwicky give people a harder time than his contemporaries could stomach? Go into the Caltech archives and read or listen to the oral histories of Zwicky’s contemporaries, as I do on the afternoon of my visit with Barbarina, and you’ll find not only the sources of many of the stories and quotes that have followed Zwicky beyond the grave, but hints of how much his reputation may have compromised his science while he was alive and working. “There’s no doubt that he had a mind which was quite extraordinary,” said Jesse Greenstein, the late, longtime director of Caltech astronomy during Zwicky’s years there (and a frequent object of Barbarina’s scorn), in his oral history. “But he was also—although he didn’t admit it—untutored and not self-controlled.” Greenstein was close to the Zwicky family in those days, according to Barbarina; nevertheless, he reported that “I fought with him perhaps 10 times a year.” Because of Zwicky’s personality, Greenstein said, Ira Bowen, the director of the Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories, “had troubles” with Zwicky and “tried essentially to institute a censorship of Zwicky.”

Six decades later, who can actually know what happened around a dinner table on a mountainside in Southern California, let alone in the fragile egos of those gathered there? What if, as Barbarina suggests, we do stick to the purely factual: the science her father did during his nearly half-century at Caltech? Those contributions are enough to guarantee Fritz Zwicky’s place in the historical record, says Virginia Trimble, a historian of astronomy as well as an astrophysicist at the University of California at Irvine. “Science is a self-correcting process,” she notes. “If you live long enough and did something of long-term value, you will eventually get credit for it.” But, she adds, “sometimes much of the credit comes too late for the originator to appreciate.”

What effect does personal reputation have on a scientist’s ability to do science

For Zwicky, the credit that came during his lifetime was primarily for his observations—his supernova and galaxy surveys. Credit, however, eluded him for his theories, those gossamer figments that ultimately require empirical validation. Sometimes credit didn’t come because, as far as we know, he was wrong: his idea that “tired light” and not an expansion of the universe might be the cause of the lengthening of wavelengths from distant galaxies, or his insistence that galaxy clusters didn’t belong to superclusters. And sometimes it didn’t come because the evidence that would support his theories wouldn’t be available for decades: gravitational lensing, dark matter, and neutron stars (whose discoverer won the Nobel Prize in Physics the year Zwicky died).

But the credit is coming now. “He is extremely well appreciated in astronomy,” Turner says. Rubin, the doyenne of dark matter researchers, has often lectured and written about Zwicky’s prescience, and she says she does so to establish an accurate record of the science. And as one scientist recently posted on an astronomy Web site, “Some days I think that whatever it is in astronomy, we ought to just call it the Zwicky whatever and be done with it.”

“This is surely as it should be,” says Trimble, who knew and liked Zwicky when she was a grad student at Caltech in the late 1960s, “that we remember our heroes for their best, not their worst.” From a historian’s perspective, Fritz Zwicky’s notoriety is more likely to disappear from the historical record than his science is. Maybe not within Barbarina’s lifetime. Maybe not even within the lifetime of her son, Christian Alexander Fritz Zwicky, the teenager to whom she hopes to entrust her crusade, she says over dinner on the evening of our interview, nodding across a restaurant table toward him. (He nods back, eagerly.) But one day.

And that’s a fact, sort of.

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