Friday, February 16, 2007

More on the Most Famous Nudist of the 20th Century

By Dennis Lythgoe
Deseret Morning News
RICHTER'S SCALE: MEASURE OF AN EARTHQUAKE, MEASURE OF A MAN," by Susan Elizabeth Hough, Princeton University Press, 335 pages, $27.95
Even though his name is used in the general culture more than that of any other scientist, there has never been a good biography of Charles Richter, after whom the Richter scale is named.
With "Richter's Scale," Susan Hough, a seismologist herself as well as a writer, has proved herself up to the task.
As is the case with most biographies, the subject is revealed here with quirks and problems. Very early in life, his family and teachers noticed that he was hyperactive. As Hough puts it, he was "a man whose brain, while extraordinarily nimble, was also extraordinarily wired."
Having been born in 1900, Richter did not have the advantage of his teachers knowing about bipolar or attention-deficit disorders. If so, doctors might have prescribed Ritalin for him — but Ritalin didn't come along until 1980.
As a result, Richter spent some time in a sanitarium, which was not a progressive place. After his release, he went on to master atomic physics. There was never any question about his brain power. In fact, Richter might have been superior on both sides of his brain, as he also wrote poetry.
By the mid-1930s, Richter was settled in his productive career as a seismologist. At 5-foot-8 1/2 , Richter was small in stature and looked awkward and nerdlike because of his glasses and cowlicks on both sides of his head. He put on weight in later years but was never as formidable-looking as most of his colleagues.
The author spends considerable effort discussing whether Richter suffered from a neurological disorder. The most likely culprit, she thinks, was Asperger's syndrome, named for Dr. Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who described the condition named after him in 1944.
Richter had a great deal of trouble forming friendships, he was sensitive to light and sound, had difficulties understanding a joke — and he cultivated extreme special interests. All of these aspects are consistent with Asperger's.
Richter was also known to be a nudist — and nudists say that nudism is more about acceptance of oneself and oneness with nature than about sex or exhibitionism. Being a nudist for Richter also meant that he was a civil libertarian. It was with nudists — mostly highly educated iconoclasts — that he established his only real friendships.
During his life, Richter became so taken with the study of earthquakes that he had a seismometer installed in his living room — right by his grandfather clock.
He invented the Richter scale in 1932, when he was still a young man, and he used it to measure earthquakes in Southern California. Richter measured the various "levels of shaking" with his scale, making a profound scientific contribution.
Today the man remains as mysterious as the scale.
Kudos to the author for carrying out extensive research, then interpreting the results in a lively, interesting way.


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