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Documents that Changed the World: Charles Richter’s seismic scale, 1935

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Posted August 15, 2015

A scale of simple numbers unnerves us when we think about earthquakes, as Pacific Northwest residents have been prone to do lately: Whew, just a 3. Oh man, a 6. Good God, an 8?

That this scale for measuring temblors is logarithmic only amps up the drama. A magnitude 6 quake releases 10 times more energy than a magnitude 5; a magnitude 7 is, frighteningly, 32 times more powerful than a 6, and — oh, let’s just stop there.

This is — or was — the Richter Scale, whose fearful numbers live on even if the name does not. And that’s about all we know, most of us. But who was Richter, and how did it all come about?

Joe Janes, a professor in the University of Washington Information School, got to wondering, too, and so Charles Richter (1900-1985) and his 1935 “Instrumental Earthquake Magnitude Scale” quickly became the latest installment in Janes’ Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

Charles Richter with his seismograph, 1976. Image credit: Caltech

Charles Richter with his seismograph, 1976. Image credit: Caltech

“The genesis of all this, the source of those numbers and the way we derive, react to and think about them,” Janes said, “was a paper written by a unique man, an inadvertent seismologist with many idiosyncrasies, who might have been perfectly positioned to feel his way toward creating a way of thinking about the Earth that nobody had before.”

Richter was a theoretical physicist who more or less drifted into seismology. He started by measuring earthquakes to find their location, then discovered that the shaking from a quake reduces as you get further from the site.

“This in turn led to his development of a simple scale to quantify the amount of energy released by a quake, which he first referred to as a ‘magnitude,’” Janes said, “perhaps borrowing the word used to describe the brightness of stars, an echo of his childhood interest in astronomy.”

Richter began using his scale in 1932 and published it as a paper in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in 1935, where it seems to have caught on. Janes describes in the podcast how Richter’s work was widely used for a time, then superseded by the 1970s. Fancier measures came along, but they were designed to be consistent with Richter’s work.

But Richter had an interesting, if challenging personal life as well, Janes found. Aside from having his own living room seismograph, he was also a poet and may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome. And oh yes, he was a nudist.

“He was certainly awkward and socially uncomfortable, intensely personal, with a small circle of friends,” Janes said. “He had a difficult childhood, only met his father once … (and) he spent time as a young adult in a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown.”

Notwithstanding all this, “Charles Richter was one of the handful of people responsible for coalescing seismology into the scientific discipline it is today, and later in his life was a leading voice in awareness of earthquake preparedness and improving building codes.

“I came away from this with quite a bit of sympathy for him,” Janes added, “and respect for what he was able to accomplish given his circumstances.”

Still, with all the talk of earthquakes, Janes said in the podcast, “If this episode doesn’t make you want to go out and buy a month’s worth of survival supplies, I’m not doing my job properly.”

Source: University of Washington

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