Zwicky Too Soon

Big Vinnie barrels into the office, again. “Hey, Sy, word is you been short-changing Fritz Zwicky. What’s the story?”

“Hey, I never even met the guy.  He died in 1974.  How could I do him a bad deal?”

“Not giving him full credit.  I read an article about him.  He talked about ‘dark matter’ almost fifty years before Vera Rubin.”

“You’ve got a point there.  Like Vera Rubin he had a political problem, but his was quite different than hers.”

“Political?  I thought all you had to do was be right.”

“No, you have to be right and you have to have people willing to spend time validating or refuting your claims.  Rubin wasn’t a self-advertiser, so it took a while for people to realize why her results were important.  They did look at them, though, and they did give her credit.  Zwicky’s was a different story.”

“Wasn’t he right?”

“Sometimes right, often wrong.  Thing was, he generated too many ideas for people to cope with.  Worse, he was one of those wide-ranging intellects who adds one plus one to make two.  Trouble was, Zwicky got his ones from different specialties that don’t normally interact.  When people didn’t immediately run with one of his claims he took it personally and lashed out, publicly called ’em fools or worse.  Never a good tactic.”

“Gimme a f’rinstance.”

“OK.  Early 1930’s, Zwicky’s out in the still-raw wilds of California, practically nothing out there but movie studios and oil wells, using a manual blink-comparator like the one Clyde Tombaugh used about the same time to find Pluto.  He’s scanning images taken with Palomar’s new wide-angle telescope to search out novae, stars that suddenly get brighter.  He’s finding dozens of them but a few somehow get orders of magnitude brighter than the rest.  He and his buddy Walter Baade call the special ones ‘supernovae.'”

“Ain’t that novas?”

“Novae — we’re being proper astronomers here and it’s a Latin word.  Anyway, Zwiky’s trying to figure out where a supernova’s enormous luminosity comes from.  He got his start in solid-state physics and he still keeps up on both Physics and Astronomy.  Just a year earlier, James Cavendish over in atomic physics had announced the discovery of the neutron.  Zwicky sees that neutrons are the solution to his problem — gravity can pack together no-charge neutrons to a much higher density than it can pack positive-charge protons.  He proposes that a supernova happens when a big-enough star uses up its fuel and collapses to the smallest possible object, a neutron star.  Furthermore, he says that the collapse releases so much gravitational energy that supernovae give off cosmic rays, the super-high-energy photons that were one of the Big Questions of the day.”

“Sounds reasonable, I suppose.”

“Well, yeah, now.  But back then most astronomers had never heard of neutrons.  To solve at a stroke both cosmic rays and supernovae, using this weird new thing called a neutron, and with the proposal coming from somewhere other than Europe or Ivy League academia — well, it was all too outlandish to take seriously.  No-one did, for decades.”

“He didn’t like that, huh?”Zwicky inspecting dark matter

“No, he did not.  And he railed about it, not only in private conversations but in papers and in the preface to one of the two galaxy catalogs he published.  Same thing with galaxy clusters.”

“Wait, you wrote that Rubin found clusters.”

“I did and she did.  Actually, I wrote that she confirmed clustering.  We knew for 150 years that galaxies bunch together in our 2-D sky, but it took Zwicky’s measurements to group the Coma Cluster galaxies in 3-D.  Problem was, they were moving too fast.  If star gravity were the only thing holding them together they should have scattered ages ago.”

“Dark matter, huh?”

“Yup, Zwicky claimed invisible extra mass bound the cluster together.  More Zwicky outlandishness and once again his work was ignored for years.”

“Even though he was right.”

“Mm-hm.  But he could be wrong, too.  He didn’t like Hubble’s expanding Universe idea so he came up with a ‘tired light’ theory to explain the red-shifts.  He touted that idea heavily but there was too much evidence against it.”

“One of those angry ‘lone wolf’ scientists.”

“And bitter.”

~~ Rich Olcott

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