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Richter's Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man Hardcover – January 22, 2007

3.6 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Hough's wooden biography of Charles Francis Richter (1900–1985), the Caltech seismologist who developed the eponymous Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of earthquakes, competently explains his scientific contribution, but veers toward willful conjecture about his personal life. The author, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, describes Richter as a talented but troubled man whose "complicated relationships with women began the day he was born." She speculates that his wife, Lillian Brand, who convinced him to join a nudist colony, may have been a lesbian and suggests the possibility of an incestuous attachment to his sister as well as extramarital affairs. Hough (After the Earth Quakes) theorizesthat the trajectory of Richter's scientific career may have been driven in part by Asperger's syndrome, a disorder not officially recognized until after his death. The biography is stronger on the relevance of Richter's accomplishment in the field of earthquake research and on his professional interactions with other faculty at Caltech. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Written by a seismologist about the most famous seismologist, this biography of Charles Richter (1900-85) is the first researched from Richter's papers. Empathetic toward but puzzled by her subject, whom colleagues esteemed professionally but regarded as eccentric and socially awkward, Hough considers various explanations of her subject's personality. Her inspections of Richter's psyche may expand her readership beyond that interested in earthquakes to that, for example, interested in Asperger's syndrome since Hough suggests that Richter suffered from this form of autism. Richter had the intelligence and a preoccupation with detail necessary to synthesizing seismological measurements into the magnitude scale that bears his name. A nudist and a poet, Richter, however difficult to like in life--he had few friends, according to Hough--proves to have had the turbulent inner life and struggles with the external world of which compelling biographies are made. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (January 22, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691128073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691128078
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,938,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I had such high hopes for this book. The author states that she had unprecedented access to Richter's private and professional papers and that this would give the reader an in-depth view of Richter's life. Sadly, nine chapters in the author told me we were finally going to address his professional life after chapter upon chapter of vignettes of women in his life and their relationship and impact on the development of seismology. I guess I missed the subtitle that stated this was an attempt to place women in a scientific context with respect to the development of earthquake science.
But far more disturbing was the author's use of supposition. She presents a whole chapter on her case for Asperger's syndrome as an explaination of Richter's quirks. However, carefully examination of her evidence shows a number of areas where she contradicts herself. Moreover, she spends an enormous amount of time discussing what may or may not have been Richter's ample sex life, including repeated references to an insestous relationship with his sister, which may or may not have occurred.
Ratheer than coming away from this book with a better understanding of the meshing of the personal and professional life of one of seismology's best known names, we are left with the National Enquirer report on Richter's life.
The only area in which this book shines is it's final chapter. In it, the author clearly expresses her love and passion for seismology. As an earthquke scientist and educator she has a long and illustrious future ahead of her, that much is clear. However, as a scientist she should have realized how much supposition, in place of fact, might rankle other scientists consuming her product.
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Format: Hardcover
Charles Richter is virtually the only seismologist that most of us have heard of, but almost all of us know the name. What, however, was it he did, exactly? And even if it was important, why should we care about his personal life?

Well, his personal life was strange, so the idly curious might be titillated by it. The first question, though, is more directly relevant: Until somebody devised a method of quantifying earthquakes, there was no way to approach any estimate of danger.

Buildings (including not just houses and schools but bridges, highways, dams and power plants) could have been designed to be earthquake-safe without Richter. But the cost can be high, so it would be wasteful to overbuild where the hazard is slight. Underbuilding can be catastrophic. The Tangshan earthquake, as recent as 1976, may have killed 750,000 people. The Chinese government has suppressed the real cost. The 2004 Sumatran quake, on the other hand, which killed close to 200,000, was not so much a matter of building design as of monitoring and evacuation warnings.

So Richter's Scale is a fundamental tool by which to manage our lives. He announced it in 1935. Amazingly, according to geologist turned biographer Susan Elizabeth Hough, many people think it is a machine, like a butcher's scale. It is not a thing but a concept to organize a database.

It took an unusual sort of mind to work out the scale, one capable of holding vast amounts of (at the time) diffuse data, while also having the insight to pick out the relevant relationships among the facts and the application to grind out the numbers. The last was no easy task before the digital computer.
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Format: Hardcover
In "Richter's Scale" seismologist and author Susan Hough presents the first comprehensive biography of Charles Richter, famous for developing the earthquake scale that bears his name. Hough's scholarship is thorough and well-documented, and it seems she has carefully waded through every scrap of paper Richter ever wrote (and he was a compulsive diarist). Richter was a pivotal figure at a pivotal time in the science of seismology, and no historian of 20th century science can afford to ignore this book.

For the general reader, however, "Richter's Scale" may prove tough going. Like Richter himself, the book suffers from a split personality. In part it's a straightforward biography of Richter, and in part a history of the development of major ideas in seismology (at least those that touched on Richter's career). Hough presents extensive evidence to suggest that Richter suffered from some sort of neurological disorder, possibly Asperger's Syndrome (a mild form of autism), and that his interests swung back and forth from science to poetry with manic instensity. If you're primarily interested in the science, be warned that there is an awful lot of poetry in this book!

On the flip side, the book comes up short on some technical background information. Although the book includes numerous photographs, there are no illustrations of seismograms (the squiggles that record earth movements following an earthquake). Chapter nine in particular attempts to describe the importance of the development of a consistent system for measuring earthquakes without maps, seismograms or even data tables. Unless you already have a basic understanding of earthquake science, this chapter might stop you dead in your tracks.
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