Scientist Who Fled Nazis Helped Create Scale for Measuring Earthquakes

Richter Got Credit but Beno Gutenberg Played Key Role

Scale of Shake: Seismologist Charles Richter is credited with creating the best-known scale for measuring earthquakes. But Beno Gutenberg made an invaluable contribution.
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Scale of Shake: Seismologist Charles Richter is credited with creating the best-known scale for measuring earthquakes. But Beno Gutenberg made an invaluable contribution.

By Gary Shapiro

Published August 26, 2011.
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When a rare 5.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the East Coast this week, it reminded many of the old Richter scale, which was until recently the main way temblors were measured.

Although Charles Richter is credited for inventing the scale, few know the crucial role that Beno Gutenberg, a famed Jewish seismologist, played in helping to create it.

“Some people,” wrote scientist Leon Knopoff in a biographical essay, “have expressed unhappiness that the magnitude scale has not been called the Gutenberg-Richter scale.”

“Gutenberg was the top seismologist in Europe and could not obtain a regular position because he was Jewish,” said Benjamin Franklin Howell IV, 94, an emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University, who was a graduate assistant working for Gutenberg at California Institute of Technology.

Despite the many accomplishments of Gutenberg, no achievement could match the world renown of his younger Caltech colleague, Richter, who set out to compare the magnitude of earthquakes.

When a tremor occurs, a seismograph takes the earth’s signature, so to speak, in various back-and-forth wiggles. Richter was unsure as to how to measure numbers when some were very small and others quite large.

“Try plotting them on the logarithmic scale,” Gutenberg told Richter, as Judith Goodstein’s wrote in “Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology.”

Susan E. Hough, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Forward that Gutenberg was able to expand on Richter’s general concept for the scale to make it more globally applicable.

“Gutenberg was really a father figure in Richter’s life,” said Hough, author of “Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man”.

Gutenberg and Richter became colleagues at Caltech, due to president Robert Millikan’s effort to build a world-class seismology department. At first, Gutenberg balked at Millikan’s offer to come work in Pasadena, but the Caltech president prevailed. Millikan “liked to boast that southern California’s sunshine equaled several thousand dollars in salary,” Goodstein writes.

But who was this relatively unheralded earth scientist? Gutenberg was a German-born wunderkind who earned his doctorate at the University of Gottingen at age 22. Over the course of his career, he made important discoveries such as the correct estimation of the depth of the earth’s core.

In his youth he sang in the synagogue choir. According to 1955 edition of “Who’s Who In World Jewry,” Gutenberg served as president of B’nai B’rith’s Starkenburg Lodge in Darmstadt. In his biographical essay of Gutenberg in a National Academy of Sciences journal, Knopoff wrote that, prior to the Second World War, Gutenberg helped rescue Jewish scientists from Europe. These included Viktor Conrad and Helmut Landsberg, who emigrated in 1934 and went on to assist the United States Air Force during the war.

Before arriving in America, Gutenberg had his heart set on an empty chair in geophysics at Gottingen. When that and another position did not happen, perhaps due to anti-Semitism, Gutenberg returned to his father’s soap factory, meanwhile turning out significant research in his spare time. His home, Knopoff wrote, “had become the center of German seismology and geophysics.”

Howell recalled Gutenberg’s ardent dedication in editing a multivolume geophysical handbook. The Nazis took Gutenberg’s name off the work in 1937.

In World War I, he worked on the front lines for Germany in forecasting weather to maximize the impact chemical weapons. Then for the Allied side during World War II, he helped the Navy with study of the upper atmosphere in connection with the use of ballistics.

Howell said that Gutenberg and Richter were a formidable team. He said Richter had a “marvelous photographic memory”. For example, Howell once observed when a certain a seismographic recording was registered, Richter declared that it looked like such and such from years ago and was correct.

By far the most amusing incident involves the time Albert Einstein and Gutenberg became so rapt while talking to each other on the California Institute of Technology campus that they did not notice an earthquake.

They only learned about the tremor “when they noticed persons running from the buildings,” reported the New York Times in March 1933. The irony was clear: both Einstein and Gutenberg, described in the article as “a world authority on earth disturbances” had gotten a bit of an unexpected jolt.

Gary Shapiro is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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