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Kip Thorne on Fritz Zwicky, from Black Holes and Time Warps : Einstein's Outrageous Legacy


In the 1930s and 1940s, many of Fritz Zwicky’s colleagues regarded him as an irritating buffoon. Future generations of astronomers would look back on him as a creative genius.

“By the time I knew Fritz in 1933, he was thoroughly convinced that he had the inside track to ultimate knowledge, and that everyone else was wrong,” says William Fowler, then a student at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) where Zwicky taught and did research. Jesse Greenstein, a Caltech colleague of Zwicky’s from the late 1940s onward, recalls Zwicky as “a self-proclaimed genius … There’s no doubt that he had a mind which was quite extraordinary. But he was also, although he didn’t admit it, untutored and not self-controlled… He taught a course in physics for which admission was at his pleasure. If he thought that a person was sufficiently devoted to his ideas, that person could be admitted … He was very much alone [among the Caltech physics faculty, and was] not popular with the establishment … His publications often included violent attacks on other people.”

It was rumored that Robert Millikan (the man who had built Caltech into a powerhouse among science institutions), when asked in the midst of all this hoopla why he kept Zwicky at Caltech, replied that it just might turn out that some of Zwicky’s far-out ideas were right.

Ch. 5, pp. 160, Kip Thorne Black Holes and Time Warps : Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy

Interstellar from Paramount Pictures, November 7, and November 5