Up until now, I've always thought that seismologists had an enviable job; plenty of fascinating rock formations and strata, lots of foreign travel and the offchance that some day you might make a discovery of real benefit to mankind.
The study has none of the pyrotechnics of vulcanology, of course, but there's less chance of ending up fried or kippered or even lightly singed in the course of your work. You may, however, face an unexpected hazard;
This week, six seismologists go on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people, who died as a result of the 2009 earthquake in l'Aquila, Italy.
One upon a time, earthquakes were regarded as the work of gods or demons - or the slumbering dragons of Norse and far eastern mythology. As we came to understand the processes involved in tectonic plate movement, the reasons for earthquake hotspots became clear.
Recent advances in technology and data gathering have led to the theory of 'eathquake swarms' along fault lines and the prospect of predicting where the next one is likely to strike, although exact prediction is still the stuff of science fiction.
Not, however, according to the Italian lawyers: The prosecution holds that the scientists should have advised the population of l'Aquila of the impending earthquake risk.
The seismologists are being held responsible for the fact that, following their reassurances that minor tremors did not necessarily mean a major one was imminent, the local population did not immediately realise the danger they were in when the 6.3 earthquake struck.
Current research incorporates the wildly diverse areas of animal behaviour, radon gas release, groundwater levels and electrical field activity, to name but a few, and still no means of accurate prediction has been found; issuing alerts would mean many false alarms for every valid warning.
Given the number of earthquakes that happen every day around the globe, with consequences that vary wildly depending on a number of currently unpredictable factors, it seems unduly harsh not merely to reproach scientists with failing to understand fully the many complex processes involved but to sue them for their inability to predict the future.
Of course, there is always the possibility that this is all a legal convention* - maybe someone must be charged with the blame if the processes of insurance payouts are to be observed, but it seems to me that, if anyone should be standing in the dock over this, it is surely God, Poseidon or a restless dragon.
*Or maybe not. According to the recently updated BBC report, this is both a criminal and a civil case:
The defendants face up to 15 years in jail. Lawyers for civil plaintiffs - who include the local council - are seeking damages of 50m euros (£45m).
Deaf to moral discords
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