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Continental Drift Science: From Heresy to Jail Time

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 22, 2012

A few months back, I profiled the scientist who discovered continental drift.  The Smithsonian Magazine version of the story opened this way:

In a courtroom in Italy, six seismologists and a civil servant are facing charges of manslaughter for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake that killed 308 people in the Apennine Mountain city of L’Aquila. The charge is remarkable partly because it assumes that scientists can now see not merely beneath the surface of the earth, but also into the future. What’s even more extraordinary, though, is that the prosecutors put such faith in a scientific insight that was, not so long ago, the object of open ridicule.

So now, an Italian court has convicted the seismologists and packed them off to jail for six years for the crime of having given false assurances in the days before the earthquake.  It’s an astonishing decision, and especially ironic on the hundredth anniversary of the fundamental theory underlying all geology.  The theory of continental drift, proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1912, was considered scientific heresy for much of the twentieth century.  Now it gets you jail time.

The sentencing has caused deep dismay in the scientific community and on the internet.  On Twitter, @dbasch says, “Being a seismologist in a country that doesn’t understand science is a risky job. This is insane.”  (Looking on the bright side, he’s not talking about the United States, for once.)

And @seamusmccauley says,  “Italy’s remaining seismologists unanimously predict daily earthquakes at all locations for the next 500 years.”

You can read my continental drift story–and weep for Alfred Wegener–here.


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