Faster than light and Italian earthquakes

Forget the rugby – the two big stories of the week are both physical science and both Italian: the faster-than-light neutrinos arriving at Gran Sasso and the ludicrous prosecution of Italian seismologists over the 2009 l’Aquila earthquake. In some respects, the two are related, in that they both ask questions about what science is about, and what it does and does not do.

First the neutrinos. The full report is now available online – so you can have a read yourself. I can’t add much to what’s been said in the media already – this is an extra-ordinary result – utterly unexpected, and, IF VERIFIED (and that’s a big IF) means we need to seriously re-think what we thought we understood about Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Now the earthquake. The decision to prosecute scientists for failing to predict the quake (that is what it amounts to) has rightly attracted a massive reaction by geo-scientists worldwide. Earthquakes are unpredictable – that’s what makes them so nasty. We would like to be able to predict them – there’s been a lot of effort to do so – but so far, no-one has a way of going beyond statistical terms – i.e. so much chance of a magnitude so-much or bigger in a region of so far over a time period of the next so-many months/years. One can’t help wondering whether this prosecution is to hide failings elsewhere – who designed the collapsed buildings? – who gave consent for them? – who built them? If these scientists are found guilty of manslaughter, a possible result is the end of all earthquake research in Italy – a region very vulnerable to them – which is just what isn’t needed.

How are the two connected? Well, they are both about the nature of science itself. Science is about providing a framework for investigating the world/universe in which we live. It helps us to make hypotheses, and build theories (N.B. not the same thing) and search for evidence to support or deny them. At no time would a scientist claim that they know everything about their subject. When new evidence appears, as the neutrinos have provided, we have to re-consider our theories. When we simply do not know something – e.g. when and where the next big earthquake will hit, we don’t ever pretend we do. Unfortunately, however, the nature of science isn’t well understood in some quarters and the idea that we should deal in absolute, undeniable, never-to-change truth is forced upon us. I’m sorry, but science isn’t like that, and it never will be, no matter how much politicians may wish it to be so.





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