Fritz Zwicky: The Astronomer Who Coined the Term “Dark Matter” and Contributed to the Development of Supernova Theory

Fritz Zwicky was a Swiss astronomer of the early 20th century. His contributions have been vast and have extended far beyond the field of astronomy into the realms of cosmology and supernova theory. Zwicky is especially admired for his aptitude for synthesizing data and drawing conclusions that often lay the groundwork for future true scientific breakthroughs. Perhaps most notably, he was the first to coin the phrase ‘dark matter’, and his work was instrumental in the development of devising theories to explain supernovae observations. 

This article will explore the life and discoveries of Fritz Zwicky, as well as the implications of his work and its impact on the scientific community.

Early Life and Education of Fritz Zwicky

Fritz Zwicky was born on February 14th, 1898 in Varna, Bulgaria as the son of a Swiss trading company executive. His family moved to Switzerland in 1902, shortly before the start of World War I. Zwicky attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for his undergraduate studies and then completed his graduate studies at the University of Göttingen. While studying in Germany, he published several papers on the subject of applied mathematics. After finishing his studies, Zwicky earned his PhD in astronomy from the University of Zurich in 1925.

Zwicky’s Contributions to Astronomy

Fritz Zwicky’s contributions to astronomy began as soon as he was hired as a professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1929. At the time, he was the only full-time professor at Caltech who specialized in astronomy. Consequently, he began to aggressively research a variety of topics ranging from binary stars to atomic nuclei and the composition of the universe.

The Coining of the Term “Dark Matter”

One of Zwicky’s most famous contributions is his coining of the term “dark matter”. Zwicky had noticed that the velocities of galaxies in the Coma cluster did not match up with the mass inferred from their luminosity. To explain this data, he postulated that there must be a form of matter that did not emit radiation and was thus invisible to the eye– hence “dark matter”.

Apart from his work on dark matter, Zwicky is also renowned for his contributions to supernova theory. His observations of supernovae led him to postulate that the core of a massive star could collapse into a small, ultra-dense object of high energy now known as a neutron star. He also hypothesized that supernovae were a possible source of cosmic rays. These latter two claims were later verified and are now considered scientifically sound.

Impact and Legacy of Fritz Zwicky

Fritz Zwicky’s impact on astronomy and cosmology was invaluable. He was the first to propose the existence of dark matter, and his contributions to supernova theory led to a better understanding of the life cycle of stars. His work also informed the development of the theory of relativistic star fields and the study of neutron stars.

The legacy of Fritz Zwicky lives on today. His name is associated with type Ia supernovae, known as Zwicky supernovae, and the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), a ground-based survey telescope located at Palomar Observatory. He is also credited for creating the morphological classification of galaxies, a system which is still used today.

Fritz Zwicky was one of the most influential astronomers of the 20th century. His work laid the groundwork for modern discoveries in astronomy, cosmology, and the nature of dark matter. His aptitude for intellectual synthesis was incredibly adept, and his hypothesizing stood the test of time. Even today, the name of Fritz Zwicky is remembered fondly by the scientific community as a man well ahead of his time.