Fritz Zwicky: Halley lecture

On 12 May 1948 Fritz Zwicky delivered the Halley lecture for 1948 at the University of Oxford. Below we give the first section of Zwicky's lecture where he gives an historical look at applications of the morphological method and the first few sentences of the second section where he describes the morphological method in detail:

Historical Sidelights

A review of the development of astronomy reveals a series of most entertaining adventures, errors and omissions in addition to great discoveries and achievements. A spirit of individualistic enterprise is apparent at all times, which often borders on the revolutionary. This spirit could not fail to produce results which are important for progress in all manifestations of life, both scientific-technological and philosophical-sociological.

The subject matter of astronomy nonetheless is so vast that even the most prodigious individual efforts must fail to cover the whole accessible territory. Many fruitful regions have necessarily been left unexplored. The fascinating problem thus presents itself to develop methods which will allow us to gain an overall perspective of what still can be done, of what is possible with available means and manpower and of what might come if these means were radically expanded beyond those presently realized. The solution of this problem may be sought through the application of what can be called the morphological method.

The morphological method essentially is nothing more than an orderly way of looking at things. The only innovation which we propose is to carry morphological thinking to a degree of generality not commonly realized. Our aim is to achieve a schematic perspective over all of the possible solutions of a given large-scale problem. Naturally not all of the solutions which we are thus led to visualize can be carried out individually in all detail. Because of unavoidable limitations on time and means a choice must obviously be made, and preference must be given to some specific solutions. With the general perspective achieved, this choice will however be more rational and organic than it would be if one engaged haphazardly in work on this or that solution of a given problem.

Morphological thinking, without having been strictly formalised, has actually been applied by many scientists in the past, particularly by mathematicians. For instance, the introduction of generalised coordinates and the formulation of general laws of classical mechanics by Lagrange is a case in point. Another example is the analysis and synthesis of the possible geometrical spaces. In physics, biology, botany, geology, and other disciplines the morphological method also has played an important role. In sociology and statecraft, where prejudices, conventions and narrow ideologies interfere, the method is more difficult of application although it is precisely in these fields where it could be most beneficial.

A brilliant example of the power of the morphological procedure may be found in the scientific achievements of Faraday, from whose work its essential features become clearly apparent. Instead of exploring the world of the physical phenomena in the light of causal chains, that is, time sequences of cause and effect, it is rather the interrelation between coexisting aspects of nature which is stressed. Thus Faraday, instead of investigating this or that physical effect, was interested primarily in correlations among all phenomena. In visualising the various fields of physics, that is, geometry, kinematics and dynamics, heat, electricity, magnetism, optics, and gravitation, he asked for bonds between them and set out to explore them systematically. Faraday's successes along this line of thought and experimentation are well known. For instance, his law of induction established the triple relation among electricity, magnetism and mechanical motion. He also attempted to find the connection among electricity, magnetism and gravitation, but did not succeed. This feat has not even been achieved to-day. Although Einstein demonstrated the fundamental interplay between geometry and gravitation, we are still trying to establish a general field theory which will result in a unified concept of the gravitational and electromagnetic fields. Astronomical observations of events in distant space may well be destined to furnish us with the first significant clues on this old problem.

As a peculiar sidelight, it is of interest to recall that the morphological method in its full extent was perhaps for the first time consciously applied to problems which presented themselves in connection with the scientific efforts during the recent world war. In this emergency it became apparent that not even the richest nation can afford to experiment helter-skelter along all the lines of technical development which present themselves. For instance, the choice of weapons, devices or methods of warfare without the guidance of a general perspective outlook may prove inadequate and even fatal.

The morphological method, in all of its implications, was during the past decade applied systematically and successfully in the field of propulsive power plants. Because of the forceful incentives provided by the emergency, 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. These successes are embodied in the construction and operation of a whole series of remarkable jet engines as well as in the integrated and extended knowledge which was acquired on the whole problem of propulsive power.

Description of the morphological method

As we have already stated, the essence of the morphological method is direct thinking and direct action. This combination would appear to be the major asset of free men and of the democratic way of life. If this way of life is to survive, this asset must be developed with all of the means at our disposal.

Morphological thinking will not be popular among dictators. It can only succeed if we let no doctrines or prejudices stand in our way. Its application will have to overcome severe obstacles even in the field of general science where objectivity and tolerance re often not as widespread as they are supposed to be. Indeed, the morphologist is not just a scientist who busies himself with problems in a specific field, thus establishing himself as a respectable astronomer, physicist, biologist and so on. 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.

On the other hand the morphologist will also find friends and he will have no difficulty in convincing many people who recognise that fundamentally they have been working with his method, even though they may never have formulated it explicitly. ...

We should perhaps state first that morphology originally was concerned with the geometrical shapes of things and with the change of these shapes with time. In this sense Goethe occupied himself with the morphology of plants, that is, their patterns and the change of these patterns during growth.

We have taken the liberty to generalise the scope of morphology so that it embraces the investigation not merely of geometrical patterns but of all characteristics of things, whether they be material or spiritual.

Last Updated November 2018