The Power of Morphological Thinking

Fritz Zwicky at the Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory, California, circa 1936
Caltech Archives
Fritz Zwicky at the Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory, California, circa 1936

Around the year 1935, a profound change occurred in the way humans imagine the universe. It was not sudden, but it was substantially complete within a few decades. Before the change, the universe was divided into earth and sky, the earth made of perishable stuff in constant turmoil, the sky made of immortal stuff, serene and ageless. After the change, the sky became like the earth, made of the same materials and shaped by violent dynamic processes that differed only in scale from similar processes on earth.

The change from a peaceful to a violent view of the universe was the result of many discoveries by many scientists using a variety of instruments, but one man and one instrument made a major contribution to it. The man was Fritz Zwicky, the subject of a lively new biography, Zwicky: The Outcast Genius Who Unmasked the Universe by John Johnson, a writer of science books for children and a former science reporter for the Los Angeles Times. The instrument was a little eighteen-inch telescope that he installed near the summit of Mount Palomar in California in 1935, long before the big Palomar telescopes existed. That event made the year 1935 a turning point in the history of astronomy. Astronomy is the only branch of modern science that is easily understood by ordinary readers without technical training. Johnson has written a book that explains the astronomical facts simply and clearly without using technical jargon. But the emphasis is on the human characters, not on the science.

In 1935 Zwicky was thirty-seven years old and an assistant professor in the physics department at the California Institute of Technology, where he had arrived as an immigrant from Switzerland ten years earlier. Since he had studied mathematics and physics but had no professional training as an astronomer, he was excluded from the Mount Wilson Observatory, where world-famous astronomers such as George Ellery Hale and Edwin Hubble were in charge. Hale and Hubble had the biggest telescopes in the world at their observatory. Zwicky’s small, cheap telescope was the second one built with a revolutionary design by Bernhard Schmidt, an optical technician working at the Hamburg Observatory in Germany. Zwicky happened to be a friend of Schmidt and persuaded him to build it and sell it to Caltech for a low price. That telescope was the first to be used at a good site for astronomical observations, where its superb optics could produce superb pictures of faint objects in dark skies.

The Schmidt telescope had an enormous advantage over other telescopes at that time: it focused light accurately over a wide field of view. Other telescopes had accurate focus over much smaller fields. This one could produce sharp pictures of…

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