Physics

Feynman VS Zwicky

Richard Feynman was my hero when I studied physics. Although I never got to meet him in person before he passed away (in 1988) he made a great impression and impact on me. In addition to being a real maverick, Feynman was also a very pragmatic scientist – if a theory could not be used to describe a phenomenon in nature, it was rubbish, it did not matter how “sophisticated” it was mathematically. Mathematical elegance was never a criterion Feynman used to assess a physical theory, he knew better than that. Therefore, to this day it is still so nice and inspiring to read Feynman’s articles and books, which have a “straight-to-the-core” approach, stripped of all unnecessary philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Especially in these times, when most theoretical fundamental ‘physics research’ is about extra dimensions, strings that are too small to ever be seen, and other fantasies and dreams, it is extra nice to occasionally be able to clear the head with Feynman’s much more effective, and down-to-earth, approach. It always feels very novel and refreshing. Feynman knew that the sole purpose of physics is to describe nature. A quote among many: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiments, it’s wrong”. The “serious student” who really wants to understand physics still has got a lot of golden-nuggets to learn from “Feynman’s red” – his famous Lectures in Physics (three volumes) – although they originate from the early 1960s when Feynman, for the first and only time, gave the introductory courses in physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). This was, incidentally, just a few years before he got his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

Despite my, and many others, “idolizing” of Feynman, I have since come to identify less and less with Feynman, and increasingly with Fritz Zwicky, who also worked at Caltech – but in contrast came up with many new, and wild, courageous and controversial ideas.

While Feynman undoubtedly was a genius (“I’m Smart Enough to Know That I’m dumb”), and did work of Nobel Prize-class in many different areas of physics, he never really invented anything completely new – probably a consequence of his practical pragmatism. Zwicky, however, was the first to suggest dark matter (to explain the motion of galaxies already in 1933), suggested & named the “supernova” (1934) as the final phase of really big stars, and that supernovae result in neutron stars – dead stellar remnants with a mass larger than the sun – and (correctly) hypothesized that they produce most of the mysterious cosmic rays that just had been discovered shortly before. Zwicky also realized that galaxies could act as gravitational lenses.

Despite all of this today being accepted hypotheses; Zwicky was seen by many contemporary physicists as a “crackpot” – perhaps especially by the “father of the atomic bomb” Robert Oppenheimer, who had a huge influence on, particularly American, physics research for a long time. Therefore, it took very long before many of Zwicky’s ideas became widely accepted.

Because I, myself, with the (testable) hypothesis Preon Stars, “have made a Zwicky”, it is perhaps not surprising that my sympathies and my identification increasingly have drifted from Feynman to Zwicky. And unlike Feynman, neither I nor Zwicky have received the Nobel Prize. Not yet anyway…

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