Zwicky: The Outcast Genius Who Unmasked the Universe

John Johnson, Jr. Harvard Univ., $35 (336) ISBN 978-0-674-97967-3
Science journalist Johnson (Peppermint Twist, coauthor) presents a well-rounded biography of the brilliant, contrarian scientist Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974). Zwicky, who as a young man left his homeland of Switzerland for California, becoming a Caltech physics professor in 1927, is perhaps most famous for his work on supernovas. He is also credited with conceiving of dark matter—though after suggesting its existence he did not pursue the subject further —and won a Medal of Freedom for his service during and immediately after WWII, including developing propulsion systems to allow fighter planes to lift off of aircraft carriers, debriefing German rocket designers, and reporting on the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Johnson covers Zwicky’s numerous professional feuds fairly, noting both when Zwicky was in the right and wrong, and doesn’t hesitate to mention Zwicky’s more bizarre proposals, like the earth-burrowing “terrajet,” or his refusal to accept some now widely accepted concepts—notably, the expanding universe. A few brief chapters on the current search for dark matter, interspersed throughout, come across as out of place, given Zwicky’s limited involvement with the field. Otherwise, this study stands as an evenhanded examination of a pugnacious and imaginative genius, and it should spark new interest in Zwicky, particularly among space and rocketry enthusiasts. (Sept.)
Reviewed on : 07/09/2019
Release date: 09/01/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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