Zwicky in a playful mood

…who designed a new way to look at “wicked” problems

Ninety years ago, on 16 February 1933, Fritz Zwicky posited the existence of dark matter. It then took three decades for cosmologists to accept his ideas (three years after his death), and he ended his life excluded from the U.S. research telescopes where he spent most of his career, though he “discovered more supernovae than everyone else in human history combined” at the time (until 2009): 122.

Einstein and Zwicky at Caltech
Caltech with Einstein centre and Zwicky (front row second from the right).

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) website says: “If a competition were held for the most unrecognized genius of twentieth century astronomy, the winner would surely be Fritz Zwicky (1898–1974).”

In Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything, theoretical physicist Kip S. Thorne credits Zwicky’s joint presentation to Stanford in late 1933 with producing “one of the most prescient documents in the history of physics and astronomy”, though its ideas (largely Zwicky’s) took 34 years to confirm and went largely unnoticed.

Zwicky galaxy
The Zwicky galaxy

The one paragraph summary of 24 lines, Bryson points out, “contained an enormous amount of new science. It provided the first reference to supernovae and to neutron stars, convincingly explained their method of formation, correctly calculated the scale of their explosiveness, and as kind of concluding bonus, connected supernovae explosions to the mysterious new phenomenon called cosmic rays, which had recently been found swarming through the universe.”

But in one example of his neglect, AMNH’s Zwicky url refers to him as Franz, and the New York Times obituary in 1974 got his age wrong: in fact, he died of a heart attack in Pasadena on 8 February six days before his 76th birthday. NNDB, a reords site “tracking the entire world”, falsely describes him as a naturalized Swiss citizen. He has also been identified, as late as 2018, as Swedish on one of the most informative sites about his way of thinking about problems.

Glarus Landesbibliothek
Glarus Landesbibliothek

The Glarus Cantonal Library (Glarus Landesbibliothek) manages his voluminous papers and scientific works for the Fritz Zwicky Foundation, which holds his entire estate, but you won’t find much about his work on its website. On another major source site he is identified as Swiss-American, though a major event his career was his refusal to become a U.S. citizen. 

Despite his work on engines and propulsion of jet aircraft from short runways such as on aircraft carriers, Zwicky’s security clearance for defence work was rescinded in 1955 after the Defense Department asked Zwicky to seek  U.S. citizenship and he refused. He argued that naturalized citizens were second-class nationals, since they could not become President, and he sent his children to be educated at boarding schools in Switzerland though he spent 40 years in California.

Zwicky was reportedly forced to retire in 1966 and barred from using the telescopes at Mount Wilson and Palomar as a result of a quarrel with a colleague who had more establishment recognition. Two years after that he lost his office but was given space to work in the basement of the Caltech physics building, where he continued to catalogue galaxies.

Zwicky's crater on the moon
Zwicky’s crater on the moon

Senior colleagues could find him “arrogant and abrasive”, AMNH records. Others called him “an irritating buffoon”.  The Swedish Morphological Society’s biographer adds he was described as “both brilliant and insufferable”.  In a famous quote he declared: “Astronomers are spherical bastards.” His explanation: they still looked like bastards no matter which angle you viewed them from.

Even the biography listed at the Swiss Foundation which was created to record his legacy and promote his ideas admits: “Zwicky was not an easy person to get along with. On occasion, he was inclined to provocation.”

But it adds: “His ideas were unconventional and, time and again, brilliant.”  In addition to his cosmological theories, Zwicky had over 50 patents to his name, many in jet propulsion. He has been credited by some as the “father” of the modern jet engine. His publications list at the Astrophysics Data System runs to nine pages.

Director of Research at the Aerojet Engineering Corporation

His bad experiences with colleagues, for reasons not made public at the time, go some way to explaining his difficult reputation.

German astronomer Walter Baade (a later-naturalized U.S. citizen), with whom Zwicky in 1934 identified supernovae as a new category of astronomical objects, was referred to by the Swiss as “the Nazi” and said he was afraid Zwicky would kill him.

In fact, Baade had named a galaxy after himself that was discovered by Zwicky, as wikipedia’s article on the Swiss astrophysicist records, and the murder threat was false. Edwin Hubble corrected this injustice to name the galaxy after Zwicky. However, the episode is not recounted on wikipedia’s Baade entry, and Zwicky’s daughter accused the original reporter of a “vile, slanderous attack” in his account of these incidents.

Zwicky’s office at Caltech was along the corridor from Robert J. Oppenheimer. But when Oppenheimer and George Volkoff published the detailed physics of stellar collapse in 1939 they did not mention Zwicky’s neutron research.

In the history of the Wilson observatory or many textbooks in astronomy, “one looks in vain for the names Zwicky or Baade”, records a biographer (it is hard to find anything on the website though there is a photo). It took 35 years after Zwicky’s death before a biography appeared in English (2019).

No wonder he felt poorly treated.

Zwicky's Catalogue of Galaxies
Zwicky’s ‘indispensable’ Catalogue of Galaxies

A Discover magazine article in 2008 entitled “The Father of Dark Matter Still Gets No Respect” reports: “In 1971 he self-published a Catalogue of Selected Compact Galaxies and of Post-Eruptive Galaxies. He might have found an academic press willing to publish it—his previous six-volume catalog of galaxies was indispensable—if not for the introduction. In 23 score-settling pages, Zwicky called his colleagues ‘scatterbrains’, ‘sycophants and plain thieves’ who ‘have no love for any of the lone wolves who are not fawners and apple polishers’, who ‘doctor their observational data to hide their shortcomings and to make the majority of the astronomers accept and believe in some of their most prejudicial and erroneous presentations and interpretations of facts’, and who therefore publish ‘useless trash in the bulging astronomical journals’.”

In an oral history Zwicky admitted his “abrasiveness” towards colleagues. But that was by no means the whole story.

A school friend from Glarus reports: “He was excellent, very clever. He helped others who were not as gifted as himself, for example in maths, physics and even languages. He did not just put himself first. He was always ready to help anyone who had any sort of difficulties. He was a great friend, could not be better.”

AMNH observes: “Zwicky’s combativeness was apparently reserved for his peers. He was friendly toward students and administrative staff, whom he didn’t regard as competitors.”

Albert G. Wilson, Director of the Society for Morphological Research, wrote in an obituary: “He felt that all professors and executives should stay in touch with reality by periodically cleaning the wash rooms. He set the example by doing this himself.”

Jesse L. Greenstein, Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Astrophysics, records: “Faculty wives and secretaries will remember his charitable activities, including an annual display in our board room of children’s knitwear destined for schools for war-orphaned children.”

Wilson also recalled Zwicky’s humanitarian work in organizing the Committee for Aid to War-Stricken Scientific Libraries. “In order to establish closer scientific human relations, together with a small handful of volunteer assistants, Zwicky collected and distributed over a million dollars worth of scientific periodicals and books, sending them to university and other libraries that had been destroyed in the war – first to allied countries, later to former enemy countries. Zwicky devoted his weekends for several years to this task, personally carrying the heavy cartons of journals, cataloging, wrapping, and mailing.”

Thirty years after her father’s death, his youngest daughter Barbarina was still having to defend her father’s character as “very decent, very kind”. “A lot of people don’t know my father was a lot of fun,” she told the Discover reporter. “We laughed all the time when we were together.”

Zwicky as a young man in Mollis.

Brilliant he certainly was from an early age. At his top-rated middle school he scored 82.5 points out of 84 at the end of his studies, a result apparently never equalled there in 150 years. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology he achieved a grade of 5.45 out of a possible 6. Albert Einstein, 20 years before, scored only 4.91. Einstein was a teacher what is now the ETH at the time, so Zwicky was sometimes introduced in the United States as a “student of Einstein”.

Zwicky (pronounced Zvicki) was born in Varna, Bulgaria, on 14 February 1898 to a Swiss merchant father and Czech mother, the eldest of three children. His father had moved to Bulgaria to sell textile machinery.

At the age of six Fritz was sent back to live with his paternal grandparents in the small Swiss town of Mollis (Canton Glarus) to study commerce. Zwicky attended the primary school in Mollis and from there went to the Höhere Stadtschule in Glarus.

However, he showed such an aptitude for maths and interest in science that he persuaded his father to allow him to study engineering. In 1914 Fritz moved to Zürich where he completed his school education at the Industry School (today the Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium). While learning shorthand, Zwicky invented his own, making his diaries unreadable, it is reported.

 After graduating in 1916, he switched to mathematics and experimental physics. Zwicky was guided in his research by the physicist and mathematician Hermann Weyl,  who the polymath Freeman Dyson said alone bore comparison with the “last great universal mathematicians of the nineteenth century”.

Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer, wearing improvised crash helmets, September 1930. Piccard and Kipfer are widely considered the first people to visually observe the curvature of the horizon from the stratosphere.
Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer, wearing improvised crash helmets, September 1930. Piccard and Kipfer are widely considered the first people to visually observe the curvature of the horizon from the stratosphere.

Zwicky also admired his physics teacher, the balloonist/bathyscapist Auguste Piccard.

As an aside, Weyl was a colleague of Einstein in Zurich, and was much influenced by him. In 1921 Weyl met the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, a theoretical physicist at the University of Zürich, and they became close friends. Weyl grew fascinated by mathematical physics. As for Piccard, an important motivation for his research in the upper atmosphere was measurements of cosmic radiation, which were supposed to give experimental evidence for Einstein’s theories.

Spiegelgasse, Zurich
Spiegelgasse, Zurich: home of Zwicky, Lenin and Dada’s Cabanet Voltaire

Vladimir Lenin lived next door in Spiegelgasse when Zwicky was at ETH and the Dada movement was launched down the street at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. There’s no evidence that Zwicky and Lenin knew each other but Lenin is reported to have organized gangs of young hooligans to brawl with the Zurich police. “Zwicky was alarmed and disgusted by his firsthand observation of Lenin’s tactics,” wrote Freeman Dyson. “He left school for a while to organize a federation of Swiss workers and employers to promote reform without revolution.” And he remained resolutely anti-Communist despite his humanitarian concerns.

Fritz obtained his first degree in 1920, specializing in mathematics under Weyl.

Zwicky’s first-class rated dissertation in 1922, on the application of quantum mechanics to crystals, was completed under the later Nobel chemistry prizewinner Peter Debye with Paul Scherer, co-founder of CERN, as the co-referee. He received his Doctor of Science degree later that year.

Zwicky spent the next three years as a teaching assistant at ETH but with no evidence of him being involved with astronomy during this period.

Zwiccky and a Morphological Box
Zwicky with a Morphological Box

One story of his time at ETH indicates why he would find his Morphological (Zwicky) Box so useful: at his live diploma examination he described a question as so indefinitely formulated that he could give six different answers and provide scientifically valid reasons for each of them. The examining professor apparently threatened to call the hearing off.

Through his life Zwicky was a keen mountaineer, skier and athlete. With his Polish-Swiss friend Tadeusz Reichstein, later a Nobel prizewinner in medicine, he opened up several new climbing routes in the Alps, including the first ascent of the Ruchenglarnish northface in 1924. Bryson reports that to demonstrate his fitness in his years at Caltech Zwicky would do one-hand pushups publicly in the cafeteria.

In 1925, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, anxious to improve the U.S. record in quantum mechanics, offered him a two-year fellowship to study the physics of crystals (LINK).

This came about by chance. When two Foundation executives visited Switzerland in the hope of interviewing Debye (who was absent), Zwicky acted as their guide around ETH. Impressed by him, they asked Fritz whether he was interested in further studies in the U.S. He was. When they asked where, he replied: “Where there are mountains.”. But when he arrived in Pasadena he described the local scenery as “foothills”.

Zwicky in California
Zwicky in California

At Caltech he worked on the quantum theory of solids and liquids, under the Nobel-prizewinning experimental physicist Robert Millikan, who had obtained the Rockefeller grant for him from the International Education Board. Two years later, Zwicky shifted fields, apparently as the result of a challenge from Millikan to research something spectacular.

He began to research galaxies at Mount Wilson alongside Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who would find evidence for the expansion of the Universe in 1929. When his fellowship ended, Caltech appointed Zwicky as an associate professor of physics. Kurt Winkler, in the Swiss American Historical Review, reports that Zwicky had already packed to return home when he learned he had been appointed an Assistant Professor. He missed the announcement at a graduation ceremony when he left because could not hear the speech by Millikan from where he was sitting.

Dark matter, which he posited in his presentation late in 1933, can be traced back to 1906 at least, when French physicist Henri Poincaré speculated about the amount of “matière obscure” in the Milky Way. But Zwicky’s discovery of odd movements in the Coma cluster of galaxies and his calculations led him to conclude that according to the measure of their visible mass, single galaxies were moving too fast for the cluster to remain together**.

Freeman Dyson wrote in 1992: “They were ignored by astronomers for thirty-three years, until neutron stars were discovered by radio astronomers. Now we know that almost everything Baade and Zwicky were saying in 1934 was true.”

In 1934 he and Baade spelled out the theory of supernovae as the explosive final stage of a star’s life, accounting for cosmic rays, observed in 1912 by Nobel laureate Victor Hess in a balloon but hitherto unexplained. His biographer reports that when the theory was explained to the general public through a radio talk in Baltimore the next year, Zwicky became “the darling of reporters everywhere”.

On the U.S. National Academy of Sciences website, Adam Burrows wrote on 3 February 2015: “In 1934, two astronomers in two of the most prescient papers in the astronomical literature coined the term ‘supernova’, hypothesized the existence of neutron stars, and knit them together with the origin of cosmic-rays to inaugurate one of the most surprising syntheses in the annals of science.”

Harvard’s website records that Zwicky “remained at Caltech the rest of his professional career as assistant (1927–1929), associate professor of physics (1929–1942), and professor of astrophysics (1942–1968), the first person to hold such a title there” (LINK).

Underwater jet
An underwater jet. (Photo: Pinterest)

During and after World War II, Zwicky worked on rocketry and propulsion systems with Aerojet (later Aerojet General) Corporation, for which he received the United States Medal of Freedom (the highest U.S. civilian award) in 1949, the first foreigner and first scientist to do so. In 1972 he was awarded the gold medal of the British Astronomical Society, considered the equivalent of a Nobel prize for astronomers. He also had a galaxy and moon crater named after him.

To undertake his war work, Zwicky needed special clearance from the U.S. government, and this clearance was removed in 1955. When he refused to take U.S. citizenship, he left Aerojet, but came back two years later to help with space rocketry.

Zwicky was for many years vice president of the International Academy of Astronautics. Shortly after the end of World War II, Zwicky used his Aerojet connections to place an experiment aboard a captured V-2 rocket. In 1957 Zwicky used high explosives atop an Aerobee rocket to blast jets of metal into space. Tracking cameras proved that at least one pellet escaped Earth and became the first human-made object to achieve its own independent orbit around the Sun.

Zwicky shows his originality in examining space photos via various filters to see things which others had not.

Oliver Knill’s article on Zwicky published by Harvard underlines that he “was, in fact, a very hands-on scientist, who developed not only telescopes but ways of handling photographs.” He came up with the idea of subtracting a negative of one image from a positive of another (in another colour, taken at a different time, or in a different polarization) to reveal aspects of galaxies and nebulae that would otherwise have been missed.

“Like most people who blaze new ground in big ways, he had his share of clunker ideas,” says knowledgenuts. “For example, he believed we should colonize other planets by using nuclear bombs to change their sizes and orbits. He also wanted to turn the Sun into a giant spaceship through nuclear fusion reactions that would pull Earth along with it. Sounds crazy.”

For all his life, his controversial biographer John Johnson records, Zwicky refused to believe in the expanding universe theory and its cause, the Big Bang. Zwicky to the end of his life believed that the universe was static, and that light lost energy by getting “tired” and turned red when traveling over long distances. “Zwicky, later in life, began to use red shifted data, but he never recanted publicly.”

Zwicky’s office in Switzerland

Robert Schaefer, in the New York Journal of Books, reports: “Some of Zwicky’s ideas were considered crazy at that time, and for years after, too. For example, Zwicky wanted to hit the moon with a rocket to see if it held water (the idea was not too crazy by 2009, when it was tried by NASA).”

Oliver Knill notes: “He is said to have spoken seven languages, all badly.”

Sixth months after he met Dorothy Vernon Gates, a rich California socialite, they married on 25 March 1925. They spent three months in Switzerland and visited Glarus, but she was apparently no good at climbing mountains, and was also a Christian Scientist while Zwicky was an atheist. They divorced in September 1941 but remained on good terms and her wealth is thought to have helped fund the construction of the Palomar Observatory.

Zwicky and his wife in Switzerland
Zwicky and his wife in Switzerland

In 1947 Zwicky married a Swiss woman 30 years his junior whom he had met at a hotel in Thun where she was working as a cashier. Anna Margaritha Zürcher became his collaborator in astronomical work. They had three children, all girls, and Zwicky told Swiss television he believed that couples should work together if possible because this encouraged gender equality.

Asked about the significance of his St. Valentine’s Day birthday, Zwicky told the journalist the 14th of February was when people could honour their loved ones, and he was not loveable. Galileo’s 500th birthday, coming a few days after the interview, was much more memorable. “I can take care of my birthday myself.”

Late in life Zwicky copyrighted the title ‘Das dummste Volk” (The stupidest people) for a book. Asked to explain the astronomer said: “Naturally this means the Swiss. The reason is quite simple: The people of Bangladesh are not stupid; there it is a question of dirt. But a people who are prosperous and have all the opportunities – with them, with us, there are foreign worker problems, finance and transport misery. But the stupidest are my Glarus fellow citizens: it is not so long ago that they burned the last person as a witch. That was completely groundless stupidity.”

Zwicky plaque in Mollis
Zwicky plaque in Mollis
Zwicky plaque in Vilnius

Fritz also joked that he wanted to live to 102 since so few people get to live in three centuries, but he died from heart failure suddenly after returning home from a routine hernia operation in hospital.

The Zwicky Box

* Start here if you don’t want to read about Zwicky’s remarkable life.

One of Zwicky’s most creative innovations is known as the “morphological box”, a system for gathering ideas to problems and is often called a “Zwicky Box”. A list of his morophological writings dates the first back to 15 June 1933: On a New Type of Reasoning and Some of its Possible Consequences, published in the Physical Review. Morphology as the study of biological forms dates back to the poet Goethe.

Boosting creativity by 100 times

The theory is simple. In practice, however, it can quickly turn complicated. As one explanation puts it: when considering a problem “it can be hard to generate good ideas. Whenever you feel stuck, it can be helpful to boost your creativity with a systematic approach. The Zwicky box is a simple and effective way to create many unique ideas”. Zwicky thought it “could increase the efficiency of our brains by 100 times” (LINK).

It is particularly useful for what have been called “wicked problems” — those that are “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.”  As the original developers of the wicked/tame differentiation noted, a characteristic of wicked problems is that solutions are not right or wrong, just better or worse. This contrasts with problems in mathematics, chess or puzzle-solving. Later researchers have classified climate change as a “super wicked problem”, partly because those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.

A climate change conflicts Zwicky box
A climate change conflicts Zwicky box

Zwicky explained the need for Generalized Morphological Analysis on 12 May 1948 in a lecture at Oxford University: “

“Morphological thinking will not be popular among dictators. It can only succeed if we let no doctrines or prejudices stand in our way. [ …] The morphologist for the solution of his problems will trespass into many fields. He will thus arouse the anger of those professionals who have great special knowledge but who fail to see beyond the boundaries of their domain.”

“The morphological method, in all of its implications, was during the past decade applied systematically and successfully in the field of propulsive power plants. […] Not only was the morphological analysis of jet engines carried out theoretically but also all of the means were made available to carry out the results of this analysis in practice. This lucky circumstance, which often is absent in peace-time life, contributed largely to the successes achieved.”

Shopping for solutions too early

At NessLabs website Haikal Kushahrin sums up the need for Zwicky’s solution to wicked problems:

“When it comes to solving problems, our brains often jump to familiar answers. For example, if your phone is low on battery, charge it. If it’s cold outside, turn the heater on. While these familiar solutions are good in certain situations, they may not be enough to navigate more complex areas of our lives.

“Sometimes, the problem does not lie in coming up with ideas, but stopping too early when you only have a few solutions. Only when all the possible solutions are exhausted can we find the best answers.”

Ideal for groups

Some Zwicky Box educators advocate working in a group to find the widest range of ideas. What makes it useful for “wicked” problems is that it produces a wide range of possible solutions. It gives your brainstorming a format it might otherwise lack (brainstorming today doesn’t get high marks for management creativity among researchers).

Tom Ritchey points out: “The principal difference between so-called ‘predictive analytics’ and morphological modelling is that GMA is a possibility generator, not a (deterministic) predictive method or even a probability machine. Deterministic and probabilistic methods become useless (or ‘worse that useless’, as is sometimes pointed out) beyond a certain time and complexity horizon.”

Creating a real table

To take an absurdly simple example, for which you do not need the Zwicky Box’s characteristics, you might be thinking of creating a new table (a real one). Create a matrix or table (digital), with the first column indicating its components, and the others spelling out possible solutions:


I’ve skipped 4 legs because that is too obvious. And we can probably all think of tables with 1, 2 or 3 legs. But as a result of a brainstorming (alone or with others) you might get these options:


What can result

Once you have spelled out these ideas you explore the options you prefer. Based on what you know of tables, you might decide to design one with zero legs, made of glass, circular and 30cm high.

How could you make this? Hang the table from thin ropes attached to the ceiling and connected to the edge of the glass.

A round hanging table

But there are other possibilities, such as shelf tables or a table shaped like a pouffe or containing draws/shelves underneath it, and at least 12 kinds of legs.

What option you favour can depend on various factors you might add to the table’s first column: cost, ease of production, design, size, etc.

You might be inspired to apply the same idea to a different problem:

Tentsile streamlines tree camping with Stingray Lite suspended tent.

The options multiply quickly. For example, a 6 x 4 items box for a Swedish bomb shelter programme produced 2,304 possible configurations. Tom Ritchey, the unofficial historian of General Morphological Analysis, has produced a fully documented account of how to use it.

The Swedish bomb shelter programme

If all inhabitants are to get the same shelter quality (red) the blue cells indicate the options while the others (zero maintenance, large and crammed, cities only) are ruled out.

Look for internal contradictions

The major step after drawing up your matrix is to examine it for internal contradictions within the elements, formally known as Cross Consistency Assessment (CCA). Zwicky required users to assess them and eliminate the inconsistent pairs, whether logical, empirical or normative (ethical and political reasons). A table for the shelter platform options is included above, just to indicate how it works.

Another table indicates options (in blue) for one choice (in red): everyone receives the same quality shelter. This indicates a choice between large and crammed shelters, for example.

You can then, and in the real world are mostly likely to, specify several possible options. The shelter table shows how this works out with metropoles, technical support systems and small/crammed shelters. Note this suggests a choice between all taking the same risk and giving priority to key personnel, and humanitarian aims no longer figure in the equation.

For illustration, a table of excluded options if everyone gets the same quality shelter.

Garbage detection and an audit trail

Ritchey, a former Research Director at the Institute for Technology Foresight and Assessment at the Swedish National Defence Agency (FOI) in Stockholm, says the technique has “definite advantages for scientific communication and – notably – for group work”, with “garbage detection” of poorly thought out proposals and a fairly clear “audit trail” of decisions.

Ritchey has catalogued 52 morphological models used between 1995 and 2017 in a report published in 2022. From transport disruption scenarios to postal customer service models, it included accident preparedness, climate change conflict scenarios, economic crime mitigation and humanitarian aid in warzone models.

The NessLabs website offers a free Zwicky template as a Google Doc to download, along with a simple guide. It suggests randomly picking an element from each column and combining them.

The guide states: “The power of a Zwicky box comes from the many ideas it creates. You are bound to generate at least one or two high quality, innovative ideas.”

Ritchey: “Classical morphological fields are full of contradictions, both logical and empirical, which must be identified and weeded out. In fact, most morphological fields can be reduced by up to 90 or even 99 percent. This reduction leaves us with a manageable number of configurations – i.e. solutions – to examine and work with.

“How do you reduce the field? You do this by comparing each condition with every other condition, and asking the question: Can these two conditions coexist? This is done by way of a cross-consistency assessment, with the help of a cross-consistency matrix.”

“We execute a function in the software developed to support morphological analysis, and the computer does in a matter of seconds, that which took Fritz Zwicky weeks to do by hand. The field is reduced and we are left with a list of the surviving configurations. This list represents the solution space of this particular problem complex.

“With our ‘bomb shelter exercise’, we [were] left with 125 solutions out of the original 2304 formal configurations. We could go right down the list and look at one after the other. However, with computer support, we can do much more.”

In a 2002 study evaluating preparedness for accidents involving hazardous materials, Ritchey and others stress:

“The instrument is not used in order to ‘give a score’ or otherwise rate different rescue service organizations. Its purpose is to facilitate structured, constructive discussions concerning how preparedness can be improved in a municipal rescue service.  We have tested the instrument at six rescue services in different parts of Sweden. The tests have been well received and the test groups have enthusiastically discussed their own preparedness, including what can most easily be improved in order to attain better results.

“Contrary to our original concerns that rescue services might tend to exaggerate their own resource levels – in order to attain better ‘results’ on the response matrix – we found that they were, in fact, very careful to avoid doing this. We thus find the instrument a valuable resource for preparedness assessments within a rescue service, allowing for structured discussions and furnishing a method to help identify the effective means for improvements.

“There are also possibilities of using the instrument as a municipal planning tool, in support of a dialogue between rescue services and political decision-makers. One of the principal issues in this context is the boundary between a rescue service’s operational contribution to a secure community, and the strategic responsibilities of community planners.” 

The Swedish Morphological Society offers a Windows software package, MA/Carma now in its 5th version, with possible long-distance training.


In the last year of his life, Freeman Dyson wrote, Zwicky paid for a stylish wedding for his middle daughter and preached a sermon at the ceremony urging her to use morphological methods to deal with the problems of matrimony.

However, Freeman Dyson noted: “Zwicky’s success as a morphological thinker gave rise to an often-repeated joke that the morphological method is an infallible way to make correct decisions, with one defect: it only works if your name happens to be Zwicky.”

Not quite true. Theodore Taylor, who became a personal friend of Zwicky as an undergraduate at Caltech, used morphological thinking and worked at the Los Alamos laboratory designing nuclear weapons after the war. “He quickly became the leading developer of small weapons at Los Alamos, changing the main thrust of the laboratory from megaton monsters to kiloton devices that became tactical weapons,” Freeman Dyson wrote. “Morphological thinking gave us tactical nukes.”

Another morphology systems website, listing several breakthrough innovations, says the Swiss train manufacturer Stadler in 1995 reduced the cost of suburban trains by 50%, with 65% less weight, “by eliminating prejudices and growth patterns of doing things, the approach reduced work and eliminated many expensive parts”.

Zwicky boxes in fiction

Sci-fi writers have been inspired by Zwicky, too. Robert A. Heinlein has his characters use a “Zwicky box” in Time Enough for Love (1973), to figure out what’s available to break the ennui of his 2000-year-old character.

David Brin used “Zwicky Choice Boxes” in Sundiver (1980) as a means to help solve a murder mystery.

The key theoretical statements

** The dark matter paper, 16 February 1933 (LINK) : “In order to obtain an average Doppler effect of 1000 km/s or more, as observed, the average density in the Coma system would thus have to be at least 400 times greater than that derived on the basis of observations of luminous matter. If this were to be verified, the surprising result would then follow that dark matter is present in very much greater density than luminous matter” (wikipedia)

Baade and Zwicky on supernovae (1 May 1934). On cosmic rays from supernovae (1 May 1934): “With all reserve we advance the view that a supernova represents the transition of an ordinary star into a neutron star consisting mainly of neutrons. Such a star may possess a very small radius and an extremely high density. As neutrons can be packed much more closely than ordinary nuclei and electrons, the gravitational packing energy in a cold neutron star may become very large, and under certain conditions may far exceed the ordinary nuclear packing fractions…” (LINK to Freeman Dyson quotes)

wikipedia. Wicked problem (LINK)

Swedish Morphological Society.  Decision Support Modelling with Morphological Analysis. List of documents. 20th Anniversary 2003-2023

Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. 1973 (LINK)

Asunción Álvarez1 and Tom Ritchey. Applications of General Morphological Analysis From Engineering Design to Policy Analysis (LINK)

Kurt Winkler. Fritz Zwicky and the Search for Dark Matter. Swiss American Historical Society, vol. 50, no.2 (2014), p23-41 (LINK).

Fritz Zwicky Stiftung (Foundation) list of Internet links (in German) Einstein was right about invisible dark matter, massive new map of the universe suggests. 11 April 2023 (LINK)

Peter Hulm is Deputy Editor of Global Insights Magazine.

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