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See Inside September 2010

Shaky Ground: Can Seismologists Be Charged with a Crime for Not Predicting Deadly Quakes?

The fault lies not in ourselves but in the faults

The adage “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” does not quite capture the following pair of situations. It’s more like “damned if you could (but you can’t), damned if you couldn’t (but you kind of did).”

First, the “damned if you could (but you can’t)”. On April 4 at 3:40 p.m.,  a magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked Baja, Mexico, and was felt well north. The event elicited the following post on Twitter 16 minutes later from New Age lifemeister Dee­pak Chopra: “Had a powerful meditation just now—caused an earthquake in Southern California.” (Lawrence Krauss, too, lays into Deepak on page 36 for his lack of understanding of quantum physics. There’s plenty to bust Chopra about.)

Three minutes later Chopra added, “Was meditating on Shiva mantra & earth began to shake. Sorry about that”. Sadly, at least one person died in the quake. Fortunately for Chopra, although ignorance of the law is famously no excuse in court, ignorance of the laws of nature is, and would almost certainly trump his public confession.

Some tweets later, on April 7, Chopra denied responsibility for the temblor, saying of his previous claim, “Was bad joke”. If only Chopra’s mentor, luxury car aficionado Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, were still alive, we could have asked if the shake rattled his Rolls. (I’ll do the bad jokes around here, thank you.)

Meanwhile Italian scientists are in the unfortunate “damned if you couldn’t (but you kind of did)” camp. These legitimate seismologists, volcanologists, physicists and engineers are being threatened with charges of manslaughter for failing to definitively predict an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 in the city of L’Aquila on April 6, 2009, which took more than 300 lives and injured an additional 1,600 area residents. The scientists find themselves in legal peril even though anything other than a loosely probabilistic assessment of earthquake risk is currently impossible, even with state-of-the-art meditation techniques.

The threatened researchers belong to the Major Risks Committee, an advisory group to the Civil Protection Agency. Major risk number one: membership in the Major Risks Committee.
After a series of tremors in late March, the committee met, after which a government official informed the press that “the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy,” apparently referring to the aforementioned tremors. Unfortunately, that was like concluding, while taking down your house’s Christmas lights, that each little slip down the sloped roof somehow protects you from sliding off completely. (See a wide variety of slapstick movies that illustrate the physics of numerous small changes in roof-based potential energy followed by one major ground-state transition.) The official then prognosticated that “the situation looks favorable,” a remark that perhaps reveals his previous experience with the Magic 8-Ball.

According to reporting in Scientific American’s sister publication Nature, minutes of the meeting show that the researchers were in fact much more circumspect, saying things such as “a major earthquake in the area is unlikely but cannot be ruled out” and “because L’Aquila is in a high-risk zone it is impossible to say with certainty that there will be no large earthquake.” They also noted that buildings should be examined to gauge their structural integrity, thus correctly focusing on the most dangerous aspect of quakes—dwellings that any large, malevolent wolf with decent lung capacity could easily demolish to acquire pork.

Nearly 4,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter to the president of Italy urging an end to the witch hunt. They want resources to be expended on “earthquake preparedness and risk mitigation rather than on prosecuting scientists for failing to do something they cannot do yet—predict earthquakes.” (Let alone cause them.) As one of the signatories, University of Oxford earth scientist Barry Parsons, says in the Nature piece: “Scientists are often asked the wrong question, which is ‘when will the next earthquake hit?’ The right question is ‘how do we make sure it won’t kill so many people when it hits?’” Prosecutors should query the researchers on this issue before ascertaining guilt or innocence using the tried-and-true method of determining their buoyancy.

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