top of page
  • Writer's picturePatrick

Physicist Fritz Zwicky, born 120 years ago, has made groundbreaking achievements in astrophysics

Updated: Feb 24

Fritz Zwicki (February 14, 1898 – February 8, 1974) was a Swiss astronomer. He worked most of his life at the California Institute of Technology in the USA, where he made many important contributions in theoretical and observational astronomy. Some of his discoveries can only be truly appreciated today. 1933, Zwicki was the first to use the virial theorem to infer the existence of unseen dark matter, describing it as "dunkle Materie".

Fritz Zwicki was born in Varna, Bulgaria, to Fridolin Zwicki (1868-1944) and Franziska Vrček (1871-1927). His father was a prominent industrialist in the Bulgarian city and also served as ambassador of Norway in Varna (1908–1933). The Zwicki House in Varna was designed and built by Fridolin Zwicki. Fritz's mother, Franziska Vrček was an ethnic Czech of the Austro-Hungarian-Empire. Fritz was the oldest of the Zwicki family's three children: he had a younger brother named Rudolf (born 1900) and a sister, Leonie (born 1905). Fritz's mother died in Varna in 1927, and his father Fridolin remained in Bulgaria until 1945, when he returned to Switzerland. His sister Leonie married a Bulgarian from Varna and spent her entire life in the city.

In 1904, at the age of six, Fritz was sent to his grandparents in the family's ancestral canton of Glarus to study commerce. His interests shifted to math and physics and he received an advanced education in mathematics and experimental physics at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic (today known as ETH Zurich) in Zurich. In 1925, he immigrated to the United States to work with Robert Millikan at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with an office down the hall from Robert Oppenheimer after receiving the "international fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

He was responsible for positing numerous cosmological theories that have a profound impact on the understanding of our universe today. He was the first to coin the term "supernova" during his fostering the concept of neutron stars. Zwicky was a lone wolf and did all of his own mathematical work. He intended to write an autobiography titled: "Operation Lone Wolf." It would be five years later when Oppenheimer would publish his landmark paper announcing "neutron stars". Fritz was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Caltech in 1942 and also worked as a research director/consultant for Aerojet Engineering Corporation (1943–1961) and staff member of Mount Wilson Obersvatory and Palomar Observatory for most of his career. He developed some of the earliest jet engines and holds over 50 patents, many in jet propulsion, and is the inventor of the Underwater Jet, the Two Piece Jet Thrust Motor and Inverted Hydro Pulse.

In April 1932, Fritz Zwicki married Dorothy Vernon Gates, a member of a prominent local family and a daughter of California State Senator Egbert Gates. Her money was instrumental in the funding of the Palomar Observatory during the Great Depression. Nicholas Roosevelt, cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, was his brother-in-law by marriage to Tirzah Gates. Zwicki and Dorothy divorced amicably in 1941. In 1947 Zwicki was married in Switzerland to Anna Margaritha Zürcher (1929-2012) and they had three daughters, Margrit (1948), Franziska (1950), and Barbara (1952). The Zwicki Museum houses many of his papers and scientific works, and the Fritz Zwicki Stiftung (Foundation) in Switzerland carries on his ideas relating to "Morphological analysis". Zwicki died in Pasadena on February 8, 1974, and was buried in Mollis.

He is remembered as both a genius and a curmudgeon. One of his favorite insults was to refer to people he did not approve of as "spherical bastards", because, he explained, they were bastards no matter which way one looked at them.

A recent biography in English was published by the Fritz Zwicky Foundation: Alfred Stöckli & Roland Müller: Fritz Zwicky – An Extraordinary Astrophysicist. Cambridge Scientific Publishers, Cambridge, 2011. A review of the book is available from Acta Morphologica Generalis.

Source: Wikipedia (

Blog on Nationalmuseum: Katrin Brunner

310 views0 comments


bottom of page