A Famous [But Unknown] Scientist

Suzan Elizabeth Hough is an American seismologist and a writer. She is the author of four books. Her fourth book, published in 2007, is the "measure of a man" [her words] whose name is arguably one of the most known [and repeated] names of a scientist in the world. In my country, Greece, his name is in the papers almost daily!


On April 26, 1900 a boy "was born near Overpeck, Ohio, north of Cincinnati". His father’s surname was Kinsinger. After his mother was divorced from his father the child adopted his mother’s maiden name: Richter. So, the man into which the boy grew is known to the world as Charles Frances Richter.


Hough says: "[O]ne day I ventured down in the bowels of Caltech’s Beckman  building…and arrived at the Caltech archives, to whom Richter left his papers. All his papers." The emphasis on the word "all" belongs to Hough. I think that it takes courage and honesty for a person to leave all his papers to "public view". These papers gave the chance to Hough to search deeply in the mind of "an enormously compelling man: brilliant, yet tormented by demons that very nearly got the best of him." Beside Richter’s scientific work the papers included a big volume of literary [mostly poems], philosophical and social writing. Hough should be praised for her objective, honest and "humane" treatment of all this material.


The result of Hough’s search is presented in her book: "Richter’s Scale", Princeton University Press, 2007, 335 pages. The "scale" is a mathematical formula by which we can "measure" the magnitude of an earthquake [not a physical device as some people think].


The remark that Richter’s name is almost daily in the Greek papers is based on the fact that there are about 30,000 quakes of magnitude 4 Richter all over the earth, annually. A great percentage of them hit Greece. As a matter of fact, during the last couple of weeks the coverage is not only rich but "scary", as there is the usual rumor for a "big one" in Athens, very soon, according to some seismologists, etc, etc.   


Richter lived to be 85. All these years, for him every day was almost a martyrdom. He struggled to cope with his fellow men and with himself. This was due to a disorder in the chemistry of his brain. This disorder is known as "Asperger’s Syndrome". Asperger’s belongs to a wide spectrum of disorders such as autism, Tourette’s [tics], Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), etc. People with Asperger’s exhibit "unusual responses to sensory stimuli, seeming lack of interest in other people, abnormally intense insistence on routine", etc.


In 1937 Richter and his wife took a mule tour of the Grand Canyon. "Charles (Richter) was so slow and pokey we did not know who would hire him-maybe he just caught butterflies for a living, but then we [decided] that he was too slow for that so Charles['s] means for earning a living remained a mystery to us… However…we were grateful to Charles for having handed us a lot of laughs…". The words belong to Gladys Broderson, who shared the tour, and who, according to Hough "appears to have been not only a delightful essayist but also a perceptive observer of people". Richter had already invented the "scale" seven years before, in 1932, and by 1937, even if he was not a household name his was a rather famous name among informed people. If a "refined" person as Broderson saw Richter in this way, one can understand what Richter had to undergo in his daily life.


Richter’s contribution to seismology, apart from the scale, is tremendous. Hough writes: "[He] was the type of scientist who sometimes understood answers to questions his colleagues hadn’t asked yet." [Emphasis added]. Although, as a civil engineer, I have been involved with the problem of earthquakes for more than 50 years this is not the place to write about these scientific contributions. What should interest us here is Richter’s thinking about social matters. "His formidable intellect grappled with such questions as the nature of art and science, the nature of the self, the essence of human personality, the essence of society", writes Hough. And she adds: "Richter was thinking about more in a day than some people reflect on in a lifetime".


However, before we go on, a few of bits of information are useful: Richter declared that "Only fools and charlatans predict earthquakes". In an another text he writes: "aid [for research] is given to people who would like to forget that for public safety we do not need prediction-that earthquake risk could be removed, almost completely, by proper building construction and regulation". Also Richter elsewhere says: "No place on earth is guaranteed to sit still and stay still forever". Hough informs us that "on November  9, 1727, an earthquake struck near Newbury, Massachusetts". And that: "The largest historic earthquake in New England, on November 19, 1755, struck east of Cape Ann…" 


So, the "social" Richter wrote around 1927, at the age of 27, to a not identified woman:


"As I understand you, you believe that all this concern about such an ethereal matter as the relation of science to art  is a little superfluous when our society is confronted with so many vital problems, so many flagrant injustices; that is why you are a communist, not a scientist or an artist. Am I wrong?" Hough adds: "Richter goes on to opine on the subject of the ideal society, referring to the ‘Russian experiment’ and noting that he ‘has no desire to see that experiment repeated here, though its results (when they are reached) may well be applied everywhere’. He offers his own vision-of sorts- of an ideal society: ‘My hope for the transformation of society lies chiefly in the power of art’ ". 


Richter retired in 1970. There was the usual farewell party. One colleague of Richter’s wrote a poem, "The Richter Scale", which the attending colleagues sung twice. Richter got extremely angry. Later Richter told a colleague: "My science is not a joke". Hough states that: "Richter’s simple ‘inability to take a joke’… was not what it seemed." In a letter to the colleague, previously mentioned, Richter wrote: "I had in mind some serious and carefully prepared remarks…I was met with such guffaws after every word that I could scarcely make my words heard. So I gave up."


Hough, after 30 years, found a draft of the speech that Richter intended to make. The manuscript was dated: May 22, 1970. Here are some passages from the speech that we think are of relevance to us in ZNet:


- "I need not tell you that right now there are all the necessary means to create a decent world. The chief obstacles are ignorance; greed; militarism; nationalism; and the violence that stems either from a psychotic impulse to destruction, or from a feeling of inferiority and a desire for revenge." 


- It is painful to hear the same arguments now that we’re used to justify the two great wars [WWI and WWII]-and along with them the same half truths, and probably some of the same lies". [Note: Richter died in 1985. He did not make it to Iraq, Afghanistan, Rumsfeld, Cheney and the Great "W".]


- In spite of the great development of information services the world has ever known, I think that no ordinary citizen has any real access to the facts on  which he might base sound judgment on the national and social issues of our times".


Hough closes her story by asking: "[W]here we would be if Charles Richter’s brain had been wired according to standard blueprints". The answer could be to one more Karl Rove, or Wolfowitz, or Ashcroft, or the rest of such humans, wired to the "standard blueprints". Fortunately there are the Richters of the world, wired not to the standard blueprints, which gives them the potential for honest and rational thinking. For example, thinking that produced statements as the following: "An academic department should not be a DOD shop".

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