Shooting for the stars

Just like any other field of science, astronomy has had its share of colorful characters over the years. One of the more recent ones was no doubt Fritz Zwicky (1898-1947). Zwicky was a Swiss astronomer, who came to California Institute of Technology as a graduate student, and ended up as a full professor, spending the rest of his life in Pasadena.

Zwicky was known for his antics and sometimes odd behaviour, both during social gatherings, but also during scientific work. In terms of the latter, one could probably consider him thinking very far outside the box. One of the more famous episodes happened during a night of observing with the 200″ Hale telescope at Mt. Palomar Observatory;

One of the challenges when observing objects close to the Earth, is the ability for the telescopes to track fast-moving objects. You want your telescope to be able to move fast across the sky. At the same time, it needs to move smoothly enough so that the object you are tracking stays on the same spot on your detector. This is far from trivial, and even with modern telescopes, accurate tracking of near Earth objects can be quite challenging.

In the days of Fritz Zwicky this was even more true than today. And understandably it was of interest to determine just how fast and accurate it was possible to track objects with the Hale Telescope. Zwicky took an somewhat unconventional approach to testing this.

The 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory

The 200″ Hale Telescope. Photo credit: Palomar/Caltech.

Together with his night assistant, Ben Traxler, he conducted an experiment, where several shots were fired with a rifle out through the dome slit. Zwicky would then attempt to track the bullets with the Hale Telescope. There are no reports as to how successful this experiment was, but  it is definitely an example of Zwicky’s outside-the-box thinking. The incident did however, result in Zwicky being temporarily banned from using the Hale telescope.

On the other hand, his way of thinking did lead to groundbreaking research in supernovae amongst other things. He also proposed several ideas that were subsequently confirmed, like neutron stars, gravitational lensing and dark matter, many of which were not taken seriously at the time.

To my knowledge, Zwicky has been the only astronomer who was literally “shooting for the stars”. Which should probably be considered a good thing.

Thanks to Barbarina Zwicky for providing details for this story.


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