When it comes to recognizing those who dare to dream grand and lofty goals, don’t forget to include the man who proposed moving our entire solar system.
Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974) was a Bulgarian-born physicist who spent his entire career thinking about things that were well beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. Before delving into some of the more bizarre aspects of his personality and studies, let us emphasize that Zwicky had an intellect to be reckoned with. Among his many accomplishments, he is remembered for:
- being the first person to infer the existence of dark matter, using the virial theorem
- compiling a six-volume catalog of 30,000 galaxies, based on the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey
- pioneering and promoting the use of the first Schmidt telescopes
- coining the term “supernova“
- hypothesizing that supernovae were the transition of normal stars to neutron stars
- discovering 120 supernovae by himself and an additional one in partnership with another astronomer
- theorized in 1937 that galaxies could act as gravitational lenses; this was confirmed in 1979
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. Zwicky was so far ahead of his time that Stephen Maurer started an article about him by saying, “When researchers talk about neutron stars, dark matter, and gravitational lenses, they all start the same way: ‘Zwicky noticed this problem in the 1930s. Back then, nobody listened . . .'”
One of the reasons people may not have been listening was because he was notoriously contemptible of “experts” who did not rise to his level of expertise. In referring to them, he used a less-polite term for an illegitimate child, prefacing it with “spherical,” meaning that no matter what angle you looked at them, they were still that unflattering thing.
It was not just his personality that caused some people to tune out from Zwicky’s proclamations. As difficult as much of his research was to understand, there were some other things he proposed that left folks scratching their heads, wondering if the great physicist was operating on all cylinders. A notable example of this happened during a May 1948 lecture at Oxford University. There, he proposed interstellar travel without the need of leaving the comfort of Earth. Known as “stellar propulsion,” Zwicky proposed:
“…accelerating…[the Sun] to higher speeds, for instance, 1000 km/sec directed toward Alpha Centauri A, in whose neighborhood our descendants then might arrive a thousand years hence. [This one-way trip] could be realized through the action of nuclear fusion jets, using the matter constituting the Sun and the planets as nuclear propellants.”
Zwicky’s lecture was published later that year in The Observatory (68:121-143). In a June 1961 article in Engineering and Science called “The March Into Inner and Outer Space,” he followed up on the idea. He suggested there was no need to go to all the trouble of traveling through space in a cramped, confining rocket. Instead, we could simply accelerate the Sun, sending it more rapidly in the direction of our nearest stellar neighbor, and allow it to pull the solar system along with it. The process, as he explained it, was relatively simple:
“In order to exert the necessary thrust on the sun, nuclear fusion reactions could be ignited locally in the sun’s material, causing the ejection of enormously high-speed jets. The necessary nuclear fusion can probably best be ignited through the use of ultrafast particles being shot at the sun. To date, there are at least two promising prospects for producing particles of colloidal size with velocities of a thousand kilometers per second or more. Such particles, when impinging on solids, liquids, or dense gases, will generate temperatures of one hundred million degrees Kelvin or higher-quite sufficient to ignite nuclear fusion. The two possibilities for nuclear fusion ignition which I have in mind do not make use of any ideas related to plasmas, and to their constriction and acceleration in electric and magnetic fields.”
Zwicky’s book, Discovery, Invention, Research through the Morphological Approach (Macmillan, 1969), described how these directed exhaust jets would accelerate the Sun to a velocity sufficient to reach Alpha Centauri in about fifty human generations. He did not touch on the question about how to put the brakes on the solar system once it got close to its target. Presumably, within fifty generations, someone else would figure out that trifling detail.
Although 50 generations is a long time, Zwicky did not propose sitting around and being idle while our solar system makes its long journey. He envisioned using that time to make the other planets of the system habitable. The primary tools for this would be nuclear weapons. In much the same way we would move the solar system, he proposed terraforming other planets by moving them closer or further from the sun. He called the technique the “terrajet.” Mercury and Venus, for example, are currently too hot to sustain life because of their proximity to the sun. Using the terrajet technique, their orbits could be moved outward so they could cool down to a tolerable temperature.
He also proposed slicing up the larger planets to reduce their gravitational pull. In a 1961 interview with the Associated Press, he elaborated on the concept:
“Jupiter is so big and its gravitational pull so strong that man would find it difficult to move about on the surface. The answer is to whittle it down to proper size with terrajets and nuclear power, using the debris to increase the size of Jupiter’s moons so they too can be colonized.
Planets and moons with insufficient atmosphere could be provided with oxygen and water as byproducts of large-scale models of the terrajet earthborer, which could at the same time be digging channels for lakes and rivers.
Poisonous atmospheres could be dissipated by the same nuclear blasts that shove their planets into more favorable orbits. Studies now underway indicate nuclear bombs need not be highly radioactive, so the surfaces of the transported planets would not be permanently uninhabitable.”
To date, Zwicky’s plans for redecorating or repositioning the solar system have not gained a lot of traction. He was, admittedly, a man ahead of his time, so it will be left to future historians to record whether the terrajet can be added to Zwicky’s great accomplishments or added as a curious footnote to the life of a big dreamer.