The Remarkable Dr. Richter

This past week would have marked the 98th birthday of the 20th century’s most famous seismologist, Charles Francis Richter, who spent 70 of his 85 years in Southern California. Though Richter is known worldwide for his earthquake magnitude scale and for helping to make Caltech’s seismology lab into one of the world’s finest, little has been written about him, which is unfortunate, since he was as mysterious and fascinating as the complex physics at play deep in the earth’s shuddering crust.

Richter, who held a doctorate in theoretical physics, is said to have known the names of every plant in the L.A. Arboretum. He could read seven languages. He could often tell from which direction on the globe an earthquake originated simply by looking at the shape of the seismogram (something few can do). He gave up chemistry as a youth because he had shaky hands and a number of “accidents” with chemicals. He was an excellent astronomer. He loved “Star Trek.” He had a violent facial twitch. His wife, a writer and a nudist, liked to spend vacations traveling by herself, on other continents. He had a sparky temper. He hiked alone in the mountains, at night, naked, and would write poetry sitting in the woods. For the fun of it, he sometimes walked around Caltech wearing two ties at once.

Richter is unknown as a writer, even by many of his closest friends, though write he did, publishing poetry in small newspapers under the name John Florio. In celebration of Richter’s birthday, we present one of his poems, “City Park in April.”



“City Park in April”


The tiny fears--

Will there be daffodils?

Have tulips been set out again

This spring?



Grind angrily

Beyond a flimsy fence.

Too much, already, that they scare

The birds.



Should range abroad,

Not be confined like this--

This jeweled island in a sea

Of dust.


--April 8, 1973