Aftershocks of a different kind.
No-one ever expected six scientists to be sentenced to prison because of their failure to anticipate a deadly earthquake - but that’s exactly what happened in Italy in 2012.
Underestimating the risks of further seismic activity to the mountainside town of L’Aquila was not only seen as a failure for some of the country’s most respected seismologists, but also created an aftershock that left the scientific community stunned.
The scientists were members of a government commission that met to discuss the risk of earthquakes in 2009. They tried to reassure residents, who lived with frequent tremors in the Italian city, that major seismic activity was ‘improbable’, though couldn’t be excluded, but their predictions were literally overturned when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit only a few days later.
308 people lost their lives, in a town of around 70,000. The Regional Court took the scientists to trial in September 2011 for “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of preceding tremors.
The trial lasted over a year, and the scientific community watched on tenterhooks to see if it really was the seismologists who were on trial, or the predictions of science as a field.
At the conclusion of the trial, the scientists were sentenced to six years in prison, much to the surprise and horror of scientists worldwide.
“If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only, and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled,” said Professor Malcolm Sperrin, director of Medical Physics at Royal Berkshire Hospital.
Those overseas watched the unfolding of the sentencing, saying it was like a ‘medieval witch hunt.'
In 2014, a successful appeal was upheld, leading to the scientists’ convictions being overturned. As you can imagine, the shockwaves through the seismology and wider science community are still reverberating.