Italy is a beautiful, crazy country. Take today's verdict, which condemns seven scientists (Franco Barberi, Enzo Boschi, Mauro Dolce, Bernardo De Bernardinis, Giulio Selvaggi, Claudio Eva, and Gianmichele Calvi) to six years of prison, plus a huge fine, for allegedly reassuring the population about the unlikelihood of an earthquake on the eve of the devastating shock of April 6th, 2009, which caused 309 deaths and destroyed most of the mid-size town of L'Aquila, in central Italy.

The seven members of the "Large risks committee" in charge in 2009 have been "proven" guilty of multiple homicide, they will have to pay a total of 7.9 million euros (about 10 million dollars). Assuming they pay a monthly amount equal to the salary I myself get for doing research in particle physics, they will have to pay for about 50 years. Except that they are also banned from working in public institutions, as per the sentence.

The earthquake that struck L'Aquila three years ago was preceded by the warnings sent by a private citizen, Giampaolo Giuliani, who claims he can predict earthquakes using the detection of radon gas emitted from the underground. Giuliani's claims were dismissed as alarmistic -he had warned in other occasions in the past, without correlations to seismic events- but unfortunately that time he was right. That radon can be emitted in large amounts shortly before an earthquake is probably not a controversial fact, but the possibility of using them as a sure predictor of seismic events is rather dubious as of today.

Scientists in Italy almost unanimously criticize the sentence as absurd. Enzo Boschi, formerly president of the INGV (the Italian Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology) who is one of the seven found guilty, claims he is "devastated, desperate. I was totally convinced I would be acquitted since I never reassured anybody. [...] Nobody can predict earthquakes".

Luciano Maiani, the current president of the same committee, and a distinguished physicist known for his important contributions to theoretical particle physics (he is the "M" in the GIM mechanism which he formulated together with Glashow and Iliopoulos in the early seventies to explain the absence of strangeness-changing neutral currents), says this sentence is profoundly wrong, and explains "Non è possibile fornire allo Stato una consulenza in termini sereni, professionali e disinteressati sotto questa folle pressione giudiziaria e mediatica. Questo non accade in nessun altro Paese al mondo" (It is not possible to provide to the country a consulence in a uninterested and professional fashion under this crazy judicial and mediatic pressure. This does not happen anywhere else in the world").

I find an amusing bit in the fact that Maiani defends his predecessor Boschi. A few years ago Boschi had unkind words for Maiani, when the latter was appointed as head of CNR, a chair Boschi had wanted. This was a followup of a long political struggle in Italy, with some amusing sidelines (a politician and ex-soubrette with zero scientific background Gabriella Carlucci, had attacked Maiani as unfit to the charge, questioning his stellar scientific career as if she understood the first thing about it, and had received a humbling reply from Glashow himself). The matter is discussed in a few posts I wrote back then, which may be amusing to you if you like the sort of craziness of Italian politics and culture.

Italy is a beautiful country, full of peaceful people who spend their time reading horoscopes and visiting magicians, healers, and tarot readers. People convinced by homeopathy until their conditions get serious. People who vote for parties indicated by the Vatican, but go to Spain to get artificial fecundation because those parties make laws that effectively forbid the practice. A beautiful country, but not a place for scientists or people endowed with a rational mind.

Update: For more insight in the whole story, Nature has great coverage.