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Russell Corbyn

Russell Corbyn wonders why Italian scientists apparently still have to expect to face an Inquisition in our allegedly rational age.

Geoscientist 21.07 August 2011

Italy was the birthplace of physicist, mathematician, astronomer and all?round science genius Galileo Galilei in the 16th Century. At that time, men believed that God created all, the sun circled the Earth and Jupiter had no moons.

Reticence was not the order of the day when the scientific revolution displaced the Earth from its central position in the cosmos and in so doing shook Europe to its core. Galileo was duly charged with heresy in 1633 and ultimately, publication of his work was forbidden. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and died in 1642. So it goes.

In due course, Galileo became, some would say, the father of modern physics. The heliocentric view of our solar system, once again rediscovered, was finally accepted – together with uniform acceleration and a myriad of scientific tools that have been enhanced, repackaged and resold many times over by subsequent scientists. And yet, here we are nearly 500 years on, facing the real possibility that modern-day Italian scientists may be imprisoned for not predicting earthquakes sufficiently well.

Now I have been a geologist for only a short while; but when exactly did we decide we could ‘predict’ earthquakes? We can draw hazard maps of the areas affected, but I do not recall the level of confidence to be sufficient to warrant anyone betting money, let alone their lives, on any earthquake prediction. ‘Forecasting’ may be possible; but the prediction - of many things – remains very difficult. Well, come on - it’s probably impossible. We all know this. Michael Fish would agree.

And yet despite the fact that this is widely known, Chinese whispers, hyperbole and ministers bearing platitudes have been the order of the day. An Italian Civil Protection National Service document notes that Italy is a tectonically active region with “20 million Italians exposed to… effects” that “can be devastating” and that buildings “need to be remediated” through “huge interventions and investments”1. Yet now we face the unedifying prospect of a scientist scapegoat being sent out into the wilderness. This cannot be good.

Now, in the 21st Century, seismologists stand in the dock much as Galileo did. They never claimed there would be no earthquake. They never claimed it was impossible. They also never claimed that the government had done nothing since being told of the instability of the region, even though that would have been pretty much true. And the ‘Litigation Society’ has rushed in, where the angels of the Catholic Church now rightly fear to tread.

The truth behind this misbegotten case surely is that while the scientists accurately defined the hazard, the Italian Government ignored the risks. Scientists must be able to operate with confidence that they inhabit a zone of intellectual freedom - or else we may as well all be under house arrest. Airline pilots of the future may be announcing “We are about to land in Italy. Please put your watches back four centuries".


  1. Italian Civil Protection National Service: