Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Short Subjects: Scientists on Trial

A year-long trial in central Italy came to a close on October 22 with a verdict that has alarmed the scientific community. Six seismologists and a government official were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for not providing adequate warning to the citizens of the city of L’Aquila of the 2009 earthquake that left over 300 people dead.

L’Aquila is a medieval city in one of Europe’s most earthquake prone regions; the city suffered devastating earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, and was rebuilt then as it is being rebuilt now. The deadly 2009 earthquake was magnitude-6.3; many of the city’s ancient buildings collapsed during the quake.

The emotional trial allowed testimony from those who had lost loved-ones. The prosecutor’s case faulted the scientists for not attaching enough significance to the small tremors ahead of the major April 6 quake, even though a 1988 study found that “about half of large quakes were preceded by weaker foreshocks. But only 2 percent of small quake swarms heralded a larger rupture.” 

The severity of the sentence was a surprise. The prosecutor had sought four years. The scientists were also ordered to pay more than nine million euros (almost $12 million in damages). 

The men are appealing. Under the Italian justice system, they remain free until they have exhausted two avenues of appeal. Several top Italian scientists resigned in protest of the verdict, including Lucaino Maiami, head of the Major Risks Committee, who stated, “This is the end of scientists giving consultations to the state.”

Is it fear from the sentence imposed on the Italian seismologists that makes Hurricane Sandy, dubbed “Frankenstorm” the main story online, on the airwaves, and on the newsstands? Is it a way to boost ratings and sell ads and papers? Hard to say, but this morning a visit from Sandy is looking more likely than it was yesterday, and I’ll be spending a chunk of my day “battening down the hatches.” Come back tomorrow for last minute tips on how to be ready in case Sandy is tracking your way.

When your storm prep is done, find out how scientifically literate you are with this quiz prepared by the staff of the Christian Science Monitor

Have a great weekend. Enjoy the weather while you can.

Why Saturday Short Subjects? Some readers may recall  being dropped at the movie theater for the Saturday matinee — two action-packed feature films with a series of short subjects (cartoons or short movies, sometimes a serial cliffhanger) sandwiched in between. Often the short subjects were the most memorable, and enjoyable, part of the morning. That explains the name. The reason behind these particular posts is that we are all short on time. My Short Subject posts should not take me as long to write or you as long to read (or try).

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