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Fritz Zwicky

Fritz ZwickyBorn: 14-Feb-1898
Birthplace: Varna, Bulgaria
Died: 8-Feb-1974
Location of death: Pasadena, CA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Mollis Cemetery, Glarus, Switzerland

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist [1]
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Astronomer, Physicist

Nationality: Switzerland
Executive summary: Astrophysicist at CalTech

Astronomer and physicist Fritz Zwicky studied at Zurich under Peter Debye and Auguste Piccard, and he was lured to California Institute of Technology by Robert A. Millikan, where he became CalTech's first Professor of Astrophysics. He coined the term supernova, explaining this phenomena as ordinary stars transitioning to neutron stars, which he correctly hypothesized were the origin of cosmic rays. He conducted important research into the evolution of galaxies, predicted the existence of dark matter, and was the first scientist to propose that whole galaxies and galaxy clusters could act as gravitational lenses. He compiled a six-volume catalog of galaxy clusters, and a separate catalog of compact galaxies. He personally discovered 122 supernovae, more than half of such objects known at the time of his death.

He was an informal founder of and long-time researcher at Aerojet Engineering Corporation, now a subsidiary of GenCorp, where he did some of the earliest work on jet propulsion. He held some four dozen patents related to jets and thrust, and is sometimes described as the father of the jet engine. He also conducted respected research in crystals, gaseous ionization, the physics of solid state, slow electrons, and thermodynamics.

During World War II he used his morphological methodology to propose what he described as "a scientifically founded total war", but his plan baffled government and military officials in both the American and Canadian governments. Despite living and working in America for almost fifty years he never became a United States citizen, and his security clearance for defense work was rescinded in 1955 after the Defense Department asked Zwicky to seek citizenship and he refused.

Something of a curmudgeon, Zwicky made it a point to challenge new students in the astronomy building at CalTech with "Who the devil are you?"[2] or more profane versions of the same question. According to Bill Bryson, he was held "in disdain by most of his colleagues" and once "threatened to kill"[3] his closest collaborator, Walter Baade. He was fond of belittling the astronomers at Mt Wilson Observatory as "spherical bastards"[4], explaining that "You're a bastard every way I look at you."[5] His prickly nature may explain the relative paucity of honors received by Zwicky, in relation to the length, breadth, and importance of his work.


[1] "To base the unexplainabilty and the immense wonder of nature onto an other miracle (God) is unnecessary and not acceptable for any serious thinker." Diary entry, 1971.

[2] David J. Darling, Gravity's Arc (2006), page 222.

[3] Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), page 31.

[4] Robert P. Kirshner, The Extravagant Universe (2002), page 144.

[5] Geoff McNamara, Clocks in The Sky (2008), page 24.

Father: Fridolin Zwicky (accountant, b. 1868, d. 1944)
Mother: Franziska Wrcek (b. 1871, d. 1927)
Wife: Dorothy Vernon Gates ("Dorothea", m. 25-Mar-1932, div. 1941)
Wife: Anna Margaritha Zuercher (m. 15-Oct-1947, three daughters)
Daughter: Margarit (b. 1948)
Daughter: Franziska (b. 1950)
Daughter: Barbarina (b. 1952)

    University: BS Physics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (1920)
    University: PhD Physics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (1922)
    Teacher: Physics, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (1922-25)
    Teacher: Physics, California Institute of Technology (1925-42)
    Professor: Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology (1942-68)
    Scholar: Astronomer, Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories (1927-68)

    Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal 1972
    Presidential Medal of Freedom 1949
    International Space Hall of Fame 1976
    American Astronautical Society
    American Physical Society
    International Academy of Astronautics Vice President
    Society for Morphological Research Founder
    Swiss Physics Society
    US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (1945-49)
    GenCorp Aerojet Engineering Corp.:Research Director (1943-49)
    GenCorp Aerojet Engineering Corp.:Research Consultant (1949-61)
    Asteroid Namesake 1803 Zwicky
    Lunar Crater Zwicky (15.4 S, 168.1 E, 150 km. diameter)
    Galaxy Namesake I Zwicky 18
    Naturalized Swiss Citizen
    Heart Attack 8-Feb-1974 (fatal)
    Swiss Ancestry

Author of books:
Morphological Astronomy (1957)
Morphology of Propulsive Power (1962)
Catalog of Galaxies and Clusters of Galaxies (1961)
New Methods of Thought and Procedure (1967)
Discovery, Invention, Research through the Morphological Approach (1969)
Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies (1971)


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