Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who's To Blame For Disaster?

Put on your serious hats, folks.  Today’s story has a moral.

In April 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit the city of L’Aquila in central Italy.  With over 300 dead, hundreds more injured, and thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed, it was the worst earthquake to strike Italy in decades.  And now a group of scientists are being blamed for it.

The L'Aquila earthquake devastated
several towns in 2009
For several months before the quake, the region had been experiencing small tremors, and a meeting was held to discuss whether or not there was cause for alarm.  A panel of seven earthquake experts decided that these tremors were not unusual for the region, and stated that it was unlikely that a major quake was coming.  The disaster occurred a week later, and now, Judge Giuseppe Romano Gargarella is ordering that the seven scientists be tried for manslaughter.  The judge claims that the experts’ information was faulty and misleading, and that, had the scientists done a better job predicting the earthquake, an evacuation could have been planned, and lives could have been saved.

But there’s a problem with that argument:  You cannot predict an earthquake.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Squids And Bricks In Space

This Monday, the space shuttle Endeavor will fly for the last time, carrying six crew members on a 16-day trip to the International Space Station.  This will be the second-to-last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  After this, Atlantis will fly later this year, and then the Program will be done for good.  But scientists are putting this penultimate voyage to good use – not only will the shuttle be delivering the much-celebrated Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to detect dark matter and other cool outer space-y stuff, but Endeavor will be home to a couple of rather unique and exciting experiments.

Space is a weird place.  It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s silent, and importantly, there’s no gravity, and that’s kind of a big deal.  Building machines to operate in space is a bit of a challenge, especially if you don’t know how your contraptions will act in little or no gravity.  Well, to get at solving this problem, the crew members of the Endeavor flight will help in conducting a special experiment.  Their mission, if they choose to accept it, will be to play with LEGOs in space.

Man, remember when you were little and being an astronaut seemed like the coolest job?  These guys get to go into space, and build stuff with LEGOs … in space!  I think I made the wrong career choice.