Paul G. Richards

Mellon Professor of the Natural Sciences (emeritus)
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
61 Route 9W, Palisades, New York 10964


e-mail    Phone: (845) 365-8389    Fax: (845) 365-8150


I came to Columbia in 1971 as an assistant professor and had a full-time academic teaching career up to 2008.  Since then I have worked part-time as a "Special Research Scientist," and am currently Principal Investigator on projects funded by U.S. government agencies.  


In grad school I studied elastic wave propagation, earthquake physics, and Earth structure.  I was fortunate in 1975 to be asked by Kei Aki to co-author a textbook on Quantitative Seismology.  It has been translated into Russian, Chinese, and Japanese, is still in print, and has enabled many contacts around the world.  My most exciting research was in 1996, when Xiaodong Song and I discovered seismological evidence that the solid inner core of the Earth, in recent decades, has rotated eastwards a few tenths of a degree per year with respect to the mantle and crust.  The inner core is roughly the size of the Moon, and sixty times nearer to us.  For it to be moving at a rate perceptible on human time scales, is remarkable.  I described this work in a Jeffreys lecture, given to the Royal Astronomical Society.


I chaired the Department of Geological Sciences at Columbia (1979 to 1983), long before it became the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and part of the Earth Institute.  In 1984 I took a national service leave from Columbia to work in Washington for twelve months, and joined the unit that wrote President Reagan's Report to the Congress on Soviet Noncompliance with Arms Control Agreements.  It was fascinating in mid-career to begin to interact with worlds of which I had known very little---the military, the monitoring agencies, the labs that design and engineer nuclear weapons, the policy agencies, and people on Capitol Hill.  I was asked to evaluate claims that the Soviet Union had carried out underground nuclear explosions with yields larger that the 150 kiloton limit specified by the bilateral Threshold Test Ban Treaty.  (Claims that the U.S.S.R. had tested up at the 400 to 600 kiloton level, turned out to be invalid.  I have a book chapter on part of this experience, published thirty years later, which gets into ethical issues arising in the development of policies that have a strong technical component.) 


In the mid-1990s in the Clinton administration I went back to Washington for another year's national service leave from Columbia, and became a small part of the large team that negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty---an experience that for me included presenting formally, in Geneva, for the United States, ways to manage problems associated with the conduct of large chemical explosions.  Since returning to Columbia I have maintained links with the U.S. Air Force (which leads U.S. efforts in monitoring for compliance with nuclear test-ban treaties), with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and then with the Bureau of Arms Control in the Department of State (after the Clinton administration abolished U.S.A.C.D.A. in the late 1990s at the behest of Senator Jesse Helms).  I have also worked with the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which was set up in 1996 with headquarters in Vienna, Austria.  It is an interim organization tasked with building up the verification regime of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in preparation for the Treaty's entry into force, as well as promoting the Treaty's universality.  It operates global networks to detect seismic, infrasound, and hydroacoustic signals, and to collect radionuclides generated by processes of nuclear fission and fusion.  This is a huge operation, needing hundreds of millions of $$ per year, and is technically more complex than the support for any other arms control treaty (though comparable with efforts led by the International Atomic Energy Agency which supports the Non-Proliferation Treaty).  It picks up signals from hundreds of earthquakes and chemical explosions every day, and is an important part of the whole process by which national and international agencies join in providing excellent capability to monitor for nuclear test explosions.  I helped initiate international science conferences in Vienna for the CTBTO in 2006, which have been held every two years since 2009.


I began seismological research in 1965 with a mathematics background from the United Kingdom.  As a grad student at the California Institute of Technology I developed an interest primarily in the theory of seismic wave propagation, and then in methods to understand how the recorded shapes of seismic waves are affected by processes of diffraction, attenuation, and scattering. But over the years based in New York my work became more and more practical, and much more data-based.  Since the 1990s I have focused on the development of seismological methods to improve monitoring of both earthquakes and explosions.  It is remarkable that for more than a hundred years the main procedures for locating earthquakes and explosions, as used by agencies that publish the location of hundreds of seismic events each day, have seen very little change---even though detection today is far better than it used to be, and methods have become available to make location estimates with precision that is up to a thousand times better than those achieved via the traditional methods.  


In 1987 Columbia University promoted me to Mellon Professor of the Natural Sciences, a position funded by the Mellon Foundation to recognize an academic at Columbia who in middle age had made a career switch.  In practice I carried on with geophysics research, but maintained connections with agencies involved in monitoring compliance with nuclear arms control treaties---most specifically, with nuclear test bans.  In 2003 I initiated an undergraduate science course at Columbia called "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that reviewed how these weapons work, what happens to their environment when they are used, how they are made and who has them, and the efforts that have been attempted to bring them under control.


My work has continued in geophysical research, but more and more I became involved with institutions outside academia.  So in 2008 I gave up my professorship.  I became a Special Research Scientist at Columbia, but am still able to write proposals and (sometimes) to get them funded.  I thus continue with research and keep an office at Lamont---but am now more free to travel.  I don't sit on admissions committees, and don't have formal responsibility for teaching students, though I continued teaching the WMD course through 2013.  This course, typically with more than a hundred students, is now the responsibility of the Department of Physics, and I give guest lectures.


My career has been hugely aided by fellowships from the Sloan and Guggenheim Foundations in the 1970s and from the MacArthur Foundation for five years in the 1980s---which I greatly appreciate.


Outside my office and home: I am an organist, and sing in various choirs including the Oratorio Society of New York---but have given up sailing small boats and wind-surfing for tamer pursuits.


That's it on this page, for paragraphs about "I" and "me" and "my."  To conclude with some links and a few pictures:




curriculum vitae  giving details of my publications, etc.


a video concerning claims of a small nuclear explosion in North Korea: (in 2017, with colleagues, I published a paper arguing that the event was a very very small earthquake)


a video on "Seismic Monitoring for Hundreds of Earthquakes per Day, and for the Occasional Nuclear Explosion"


a link to Aki/Richards second edition




Return to LDEO Home 


And then some pictures:


Young Paul (circa 1954) 



In middle age 



Windsurfing in Kazakhstan at Borovoye in 1991 



and on the Hudson 



At Grace Church, Nyack, in 1996 


Paul and Jody, at the Barrancas (near Los Alamos, NM) in 1997 


With Mia Leo, singing at a garden party for newly-married Lynn and Kathy Sykes in 1998 


With Kei Aki at the IUGG meeting in 2003 



With Jody and Chen Yun-tai (Beijing, 2004) 



On a panel with Sig Hecker, in Vienna at a Science &Technology meeting (2011?)  AppleMark


The American Physical Society, awarding the Szilard Lectureship in 2006 


In Vienna,  Paul is in the front row and nervously looking at his notes, since he's to speak right after Mohamed ElBaradei, the DG of IAEA (at a meeting in September 2006 to celebrate 10 years since the CTBT was opened for signature---this was the first Science & Technology meeting sponsored by the CTBTO) 


At Columbia College Class Day in 2008 


Giving a keynote address in Vienna (2009)   AppleMark


Paul, Jody, Gillian, Leo, Grisha, and Mark (2012) 


Flying a kite with son-in-law Grisha and grandson Leo (2013) 


Paul and Jody in Venice (2015) --- the gondolier is multi-tasking 




In the back row at Carnegie Hall (2017)