In a research career spanning more than four decades, Paul Richards, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has helped uncover Earth’s inner structure and advanced techniques for detecting nuclear explosions to ensure that bans on nuclear testing can be enforced. Richards will receive the Seismological Society of America’s Harry Fielding Reid medal at its annual luncheon on Wednesday, April 21.
“Paul has been a pillar of credibility in the debates over nuclear test ban verification,” said Lamont seismologist Arthur Lerner-Lam. “His work is the perfect example of how excellent science needs no exaggeration to have an impact on public policy. But beyond that, his research has been the foundation for several generations of seismologists on everything from the nuances of seismic wave propagation, to the very basic task of locating earthquakes.”
Since coming to Lamont in 1971, Richards has made important contributions to observational and theoretical seismology. His full-wave theory for creating synthetic seismograms laid a foundation for waveform modeling to study Earth’s structure. He also helped discover that Earth’s inner core is rotating slightly faster than the rest of the planet, fundamentally altering our view of Earth’s dynamics.
More recently, he has been at the forefront of using seismology to differentiate small nuclear explosions from earthquakes, mine collapses and meteors, and to precisely locate nuclear blasts and measure their size—information critical to enforcing arms-control treaties. He has provided expert advice on these issues for the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, among others.
In the last few years, the science of detecting a nuclear test has become so reliable that “no nation could expect to get away with secretly exploding a device having military significance,” he wrote recently in an article for Scientific American with Lamont colleague Won-Young Kim. At Columbia, Richards teaches a course, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the geophysics text book he co-wrote in 1980, Quantitative Seismology, is still used in classrooms today.