Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man ,

Susan Elizabeth
Princeton U. Press
Princeton, NJ
, 2007. $27.95 (335 pp.). ISBN 978-0-691-12807-8

Having dabbled in the theory of earthquake dynamics, I was intrigued by the request from Physics Today to review Susan Elizabeth Hough’s Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. I had worked enough in the field to be fascinated by its challenges and curious about its history. Hough is a professional seismologist and writer. Surely, I thought, her biography of Charles F. Richter (1900–85) will address important questions in the history of modern science.

I knew that Richter, along with colleagues such as Beno Gutenberg and Hugo Benioff, had laid down the foundations of modern seismology before there was any understanding of plate tectonics, in an era when a “computer” was a person, usually female, who was hired to do arithmetic. How did Richter do this? How did he visualize earthquakes? What physical principles did he invoke? How could he possibly have gathered, assimilated, and analyzed data in ways that made such good sense? I opened the book in hopes of finding something akin to Abraham Pais’s “Subtle Is the Lord…”: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford U. Press, 1982), in which scientific commentary is interspersed throughout a biography. I expected at least something intellectually comparable to the wonderful books by Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 (HarperCollins, 2003) and A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (HarperCollins, 2005). Winchester’s glowing endorsement appears on the front cover of Hough’s book.

I was badly disappointed. Hough devotes at most a few pages to the Richter scale, and those are aimed at readers who don’t understand logarithms. I found no explanation of what is actually measured by a seismometer (displacement, velocity, acceleration?) and only one brief hint about the feature of the seismogram that Richter chose as the basis of his famous scale. The book contains no diagrams, no maps of earthquake faults, and not even any seismograms. There are repeated allusions to the question of whether Gutenberg deserved as much credit as Richter for the scale but little information about the issues that either of them was grappling with at the time, or about the scientific uncertainties that they were facing.

Hough’s main interest is not in Richter’s seismology at all but in the fact that he was a quirky person, who possibly suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. She tells us about his early emotional problems, his sometimes difficult personal relations, his inability to laugh at himself or enjoy friendly jokes that others might play on him, and his close association with nudist colonies that were well beyond the bounds of propriety in the first half of the 20th century, even in California.

Much of the book is devoted to Richter’s activities as a mostly unpublished poet and philosopher. His sister Margaret Rose was a talented and troubled poet whose work deservedly attracted attention throughout most of her life. Judging from the lengthy selections in Hough’s book, Richter’s poetry was good but not as imaginative as his sister’s. A part of his literary output was in the form of poems and letters ostensibly addressed to unidentified women with whom Hough concludes he was having affairs. His relationship with his wife Lillian, whom he married in 1928, seems to have been a bit distant; for example, they vacationed separately, but they stayed together throughout their marriage until her death in 1972.

To put it bluntly, I found the biography boring, repetitive, and hard to read. In the second half, Hough finally gets around to trying to prove her theory that Richter had Asperger’s syndrome. She lists the textbook symptoms in parallel with Richter’s personality quirks, almost all of which she has described earlier, many more than once. I was left asking myself why I should be interested in the specifics of this psychological diagnosis. Lots of research scientists and academicians are cantankerous people, and in varying degrees we learn how to get along with them. Why does Richter’s personality deserve so much more detailed attention than his science?

To make matters worse, Hough’s book suffers from a lack of editing. Typos, word omissions, and incomplete sentences abound. More importantly, the book lacks narrative cohesion; it is full of diversions that add little to its main themes. Does the reader really need to know which administrative staff member at Caltech’s seismological laboratory was acutely afraid of lizards? Why is there a chapter at the end of the book about seismological controversies that occurred decades after Richter’s death and that seem to have little to do with any of Richter’s scientific ideas?

Richter’s Scale is not the book about seismological history that I wanted to read. Perhaps those who have personal connections to the Caltech seismology community will find it interesting and revealing. But I think that the meatier parts of this material plus some scientific content could make a much better book. I hope that someone will write it.