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Seismologists Convicted of Manslaughter for Failing to Predict Earthquake

Seven people — six Italian seismologists and a government official — were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison on Monday for failing to warn people of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 300 people.

This follows a 2009 meeting in L’Aquila Italy in which defendants were asked to assess the risk of damage from a major earthquake, following months of seismic activity. They were charged with assessing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information on the earthquake risk.

Two scientists, a physicist who led the department that monitors seismic risks and director of office that monitors volcano and earthquake threats resigned on Tuesday.

Miles O’Brien reported on the trial and the science of predicting earthquakes a year ago.

Many have compared this to the 1633 trial of Galileo, who was found guilty of heresy for saying the Earth was not the center of the universe, he notes in the piece.

The court decision has outraged many who fear the conviction will set a dangerous precedent and deter other scientists from voicing public opinions. Thousands of scientists signed this letter warning Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano that a conviction could have a chilling effect, “impeding the free exchange of ideas necessary for progress in science and discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance.” Plus, the letter points out, predicting earthquakes not yet scientifically possible.

This Nature story from September 2011 by Stephen Hall, sums up the trial beautifully, describing L’Aquila as “a jewel of medieval beauty set in the middle of one of the most seismically dangerous zones in Italy” and “surrounded by the massive peaks of the restless Apennine mountain range.” It also mentions that the city was destroyed twice before by earthquakes, in 1461 and 1703. It also includes first person accounts of the big quake and background on the convicted scientists.

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