allochthonous: (spirit)
I was having a pretty good day (met a friend for lunch; drunk pretentious coffee; stumbled across a charity shop containing six pairs of nearly new Gap jeans in my size - limited myself to two, but still not bad for fifteen quid) but then I came home and read this and got annoyed.

L'Aquila quake: Italian scientists guilty of manslaughter


Briefly, the members of the Committee for Public Safety have been sentenced to six years each for manslaughter for not giving sufficient warning of the 2009 earthquake in which 309 people died (specifically, for not communicating the risk accurately. ETA2 because I was not very clear here; they were accused of understating the risk and providing inaccurate reassurances that caused peopel to alter their behaviour). This is completely insane, scientifically unsound and sets a very worrying precedent for future prosecutions. Trying to predict geophysical hazards is difficult enough already (anyone fancy being the person who has to make the call when to evacuate the 3 million people living in the Naples area if Vesuvius starts rumbling?), the last thing scientists need is the threat of jail sentences hanging over their heads if they get it wrong.

There is a very good and detailed blog post on the subject here from Highly Allocthonous (no relation: we both independently picked our names from geology class, although he stuck with the rocks for longer than me and hence is better-informed on the subject), written back in June last year when the prosections were kicking off. Back then, no one expected the prosecution to amount to anything. I hope the committee members appeal the hell out of this verdict and get it overturned.

Meanwhile, the best way to limit damage from earthquakes remains developing and properly enforcing stringent building codes for earthquake hazard zomes. There was a lot of argument in the aftermath of the L'Aquila earthquake as to whether poor enforcement of building codes was to blame for the high death toll; certainly a very high number of buildings were damaged in the quake, although it appears that the failure to retrofit older buildings may have been a bigger problem than poorly-constructed newer buildings. The Italian government would be better off investing in improved building techiques rather than pursuing such poorly-informed prosecutions.

ETA Excellent context from the NYT here and 2011 article from Nature on the trial here.

SCIENCE

Jul. 4th, 2012 10:25 am
allochthonous: (communist party)
CERN experiments observe particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson.

It's been a good seven years since I last studied physics properly, and longer since I did any particle physics, but the news of the discovery of the Higgs boson (more accurately, the detection of the signal of a new boson that behaves very much like the Higgs has been predicted to behave) is making me miss it a bit. The CERN presentations have just finished and the whole room of particle physicists is going nuts. Two separate experiments have observed a new particle with a very high level of confidence (4.9 - 5.1 sigma, 5.0 sigma is usually given as a threshold for "discovery") that is consistent with the standard model predictions of the Higgs boson behaviour. It may not be the Higgs boson (actually, it would be kind of fun if it was something else), but it's pretty damn cool nonetheless. It's good to be reminded that in spite of everything shitty in the world, there are still  people who get their kicks out of accelerating beans of particles to speeds close to the speed of light, and smashing them together to see what they can find in the debris. Hooray for science!

More about the Higgs boson here and here, good liveblog here, and smartarse remarks about the decision to present in Comic Sans here.

Oh, and obligatory link to havewefoundthehiggsyet.com (please note the font).

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