Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Seismometers and crystal balls

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).


  1. The link doesn't work. Are you telling porkies or are there really people stupid enough to prosecute this? No scratch that. There are.

  2. Thanks, Bucko - now fixed.

    Unbelievable , isn't it?

    I still can't comment at your place - most frustrating, as you've done some seriously good stuff lately!

  3. That's baffling me, so it is.
    Do you want a log in id?

  4. Not sure how these things work but could try, maybe - thanks. I have an address I visit occcasionally; macheath01 at gmail plus the usual.

    However, I think it may be my (borrowed) computer's ultra-careful security settings - it's like being stalked by Mary Whitehouse - so I'll probably have to stick to linking a post to one of yours when I feel there's something I just have to comment on.

  5. Hmmm. I don't think it will work. When I'm at work I can't comment on my own blog, I have to use name/URL. When I'm at home it's fine, so it may be a security issue.

    I've sent you an invite, give it a try and if it doesn't work I'll take you off again.

  6. Ahhhh. According to the Blogger forums, the problem only happens with embedded comments windows. I've changed mine to a pop up window which apperently should solve the problem.

  7. Never mind - those seismologists will have a special place in heaven.

  8. In California within the last few weeks the best and brightest of the earthquake experts concluded that absolute prediction was not possible. All that was is to identify areas of higher risk. In the case of Aquila this was already known. Much of Italy can be twitchy. The problem was that corrupt government, developers and politicians had skipped the building codes. The earthquake hit just when Berl The Bonker had organised a major moot of world leaders in the area. So who to blame? I had seen that earthquake swarm on the web and like the experts thought it was a routine easing and like many not leading to a big one. Sadly this one did.

  9. JH, perhaps they'll meet up with the vast numbers of historical scientists/courtiers/soothsayers etc done away with for failing to predict to the satisfaction of their respective rulers.

    Hi, Demetrius, I was hoping you'd pop by on this one. As far as I can see, its much the same as the Met Office long-range forecast fiasco; someone in the know describes a risk in terms of complex probability, a spokesman relays it in a simplified form and the public interpret it in absolute terms.

    It's worth noting that, even though its meteorologists never predicted a 'barbecue summer' - the soundbite was a PR addition to their (correct) prediction of above-average temperatures - the Met Office lost its contracts as a result.

    I hope I didn't spike your guns with this; I look forward to reading your next post on the restless Earth.