Category Archives: Geology

Science, six seismologists, and the Inquisition

On April 6, 2009, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the historic town of L’Aquila in Italy. Three hundred and nine people died.

On October 22, 2012, six Italian seismologists and a government official were sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter.

Monty Python: Spanish Inquisition for Italian seismologists and scientists

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

Some have suggested that this is a return to the days of the Inquisition, when science was frequently on trial. The court case itself, and now the conviction, has been roundly criticised by scientists the world over – and the popular press has jumped on it as an attack on those unable to predict the future.

However, this trial was never about the power of science to accurately predict the future.

Some of the facts

  • In previous months, many smaller shocks had struck the area of L’Aquila
  • A local lab technician and amateur seismologist had been travelling around the town putting out alarming predictions about a major quake
  • March 30, 2009: a meeting was held at which six seismologists were asked to assess the risk in light of this ongoing seismic activity
  • After the meeting, the deputy head of the Department of Civil Protection said to the press: “The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy,” a statement that most seismologists consider to be scientifically incorrect
  • On April 6, the magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit, killing 309 people
  • In 2011, the six seismologists and the deputy head of the Department of Civil Protection were put on trial for manslaughter

A multi-issue issue

Although this trial is seen as an attack on science (and you could argue that it is, to an extent), there are really two major issues that it raises. These two issues have a direct and measurable impact on the lives of everyone, every day.

  1. The public misunderstanding of what ‘science’ is.
  2. Poor or miscommunication of scientific ideas and findings.

What is science?

What is science? Trial of Italian seismologists

What is science?

‘Science’ is massively misunderstood by most people. It is not a doctrine, like religion, or the absolute answer to everything. The Science Council recently developed a new definition of science:

Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

This definition from the Journal of Theoretics expands upon that a little, stating that science is:

  1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
  2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
  3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
  4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

The problem is that people almost never talk about what science really is, so there is a misunderstanding of it and of what science can do.

Seismology is a science still in its childhood. There is a huge amount we don’t know about the mechanics of plate tectonics and the inner workings of our planet. We do know, though, that accurate predictions are almost never possible.

Blindly trusting science to give us all the answers right now is not sensible. We want people to embrace science, but not as an absolute answer to everything. People must question what they hear – especially if their job is to communicate that information to the general public.

Essentially, science is a work in progress, and it always will be.

The importance of good communication skills

Misinformation: communication in science, trial of Italian seismologists


Seismology is a complex area of science, even to those with scientific backgrounds. What chance do non-scientists have of understanding it if it is not explained properly? That is what the Italian trial is really about and that it what I hope its legacy will be: communication in science.

Poor communication of scientific ideas is rife – but whose fault is that?

Science reporting is generally woeful in the non-specialist press. This is partly the fault of time-poor or lazy journalists; and partly down to editors with a specific agenda (and that’s a totally different can of poison). However, scientists must bear some of this responsibility too.

Clear and simple communication of scientific ideas and findings to a non-specialist audience is an oft-overlooked skill. I believe that universities and other institutions are not putting enough emphasis on developing communication skills in their students and scientists.

The ability to boil complex scientific ideas and results down to information that is relevant to people in their normal, everyday lives is vital. Not just for furthering the public’s knowledge and education, although that is a fine aim in itself and would go a long way to stamping out the pseudoscience that is peddled more and more frequently by charlatans.

It is also crucial for public safety and people’s ability to make informed decisions for themselves about their lives, health and families.

I caught a snippet of a programme on Radio 4 a couple of days ago in which one of the guests suggested throwing open the doors to science. Rather than keeping everything locked up in difficult and expensive academic journals, we should make it available for everyone.

This is a fine sentiment, and one with which I am in total agreement; but I can’t help feeling that we already have that service in the form of magazines like Nature and New Scientist, which do an excellent job of explaining the complicated in a simple manner. We just need to encourage the popular press to start doing it too.

Opening science up to everyone would empower people to discover not only the truth about our universe, but also to govern their own lives and choices on an everyday basis. And you can’t put a price on that.

Looking at the future

I will be watching the aftermath of the Italian trial with interest and more than a little trepidation. One thing that does worry me is the possibility that scientists will be less likely in future to offer any advice or information for fear of legal reprisals.

However, if what comes out of all this is improved communication between the scientific community, officials, and the general public, it will have been worthwhile.


Everything must flow

Everything is connected. Absolutely everything. From the more obvious water cycle, to the less obvious carbon cycle, to the frankly astounding and mind-boggling fact that we are all made of stardust.

Simple, observable, everyday phenomena tell us an enormous amount about how the Earth works. For example, I found out during my study of Book 6: Exploring Earth’s History, where that yellowy-orange dust comes from. You know the stuff, it ends up on your car sometimes after it’s rained. That is dust from the Sahara desert, and it only appears after a big sandstorm.

Sahara dust makes its way to our cars

The fine, red dust is carried up into the lower atmosphere by the wind, and – if it’s fine enough, and the wind is blowing in the right direction – it is transported to our little island and deposited on our cars (much to the annoyance of my dad – it’s an abrasive dust, you see, and if you scrub at it the paintwork is damaged).

In the past, dust from all over the Northern Hemisphere was swept up towards Greenland and deposited on the ice cap in the fresh fall of snow. Millenia later, some of our more extraordinary adventure-scientists (I think that’s a reasonable title for them) journeyed to the Arctic and took samples from the ice.

These ice cores tell us, amongst other things, how our climate has changed over the past 140,000 years. They show us the peaks and troughs of temperature, give clues as to how arid or humid the climate was, and tell us about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

All this comes from the presence of dust in ice, and the proportion of heavy or light isotopes of oxygen (that’s 18O or 16O) in the snow that fell on the ice-cap.

The oldest-known rocks on the planet

Another use for isotopes is in radiometric dating of rocks. The oldest rocks we know about are around 4,280 million years old and occur in Hudson Bay, Canada*. That’s not long after the Earth and the other planets of our solar system formed (about 4,560 million years ago). They are pretty rare; rocks tend to get recycled during tectonic activity.

Rocks are, against all probability and expectation, extraordinarily interesting. Not only do they provide humanity with gems such as diamonds and emeralds; they provide us with fossils. Look at the rocks next time you see a cutting by the side of a road. Really look at them. That layering, if you’re in an area of sedimentary rocks, is giving you a snapshot of the past. You’re looking into prehistory. There may even be fossils in there.

Connected to this geological time-line are deep-ocean cores – the sediments laid down by erosion and the dead organic matter in the seas. They provide another means of establishing a relative time-line – and it’s all calibrated by the radiometric dating of rocks.

The study of rocks gave us the cause of the last mass extinction, that of dinosaurs (and a huge number of other families) in the K-T event about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. It’s called the K-T event because scientists are awkward so-and-so’s: K comes from the Latin for chalk – “kreta” (for Cretaceous) and T comes from Tertiary (an obsolete – but still used to confuse us students – name for the Cenozoic Era. And here is where I feel old: I’m sure I remember reading in books when I were a wee lass the name Tertiary. Cenozoic is a new one on me).

So what did cause the extinction of the dinosaurs? It probably wasn’t one single event (and it’s pretty much agreed that the other mass extinctions were not caused by a single catastrophic event, but by a combination of changing conditions). There were two events that happened at around the same time, on opposite sides of the world: a 10km meteor smashed into Mexico (you can see the crater on topographical maps) and in India there was, over the course of a couple of million years, an episode of flood-basalt volcanism.

The consequences of a meteor impact are fairly obvious: shockwaves, quakes, but mainly the dust, debris and gases entering the atmosphere. This would only last for a few months; but a few months of starvation is all that is needed to knock a species to its knees. Or its tentacles, if it has no knees. In short, the knock-on effect would be enormous (everything is connected, you see).

Likewise, the volcanism across the world would have a similar effect in terms of gas and dust – but spread over a longer period. CO2 and SO2 levels would rise, increasing the global mean surface temperature (they’re greenhouse gases) – but at the same time, the dust in the atmosphere would increase the planet’s albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected back into space). So overall, the planet would cool, and the rain would be acid.

This had the devastating, but on the surface insignificant, effect of collapsing a population of plankton because it couldn’t photosynthesise. Of course, everything above it in the food chain suffered as well…

Although these events were natural, they should be a cautionary tale to us humans. Every action has consequences. A change to the atmospheric composition can have far-reaching effects; alter the pH of the sea, and the consequences could be devastating. We don’t fully understand how it all works yet; but we know that changing one tiny variable will alter a dozen more in ways that we can’t necessarily predict.

Everything is connected, and it can tell us an enormous amount about ourselves; our past, present and future; where we came from, and where we might go.

To those who say that science takes the mystery out of life: you are so wrong – if anything, it deepens it and whets the appetite for knowledge and understanding. And you are missing out on the adventure of a lifetime.

*The image of the Hudson Bay rocks was borrowed from here: I thank the photographer, but will certainly remove it if requested!