It’s said that all roads lead to Rome, but on May 11, the opposite was true as thousands of Romans fled the Eternal City for fear of a massive earthquake. The mass exodus was spurred by internet rumors that said an Italian pseudoscientist predicted a devastating quake on this date over thirty years ago. It goes without saying, but here’s why you probably shouldn’t trust the seismic predictions of someone who thought earthquakes were caused by planetary alignments:
Meet Raffaele Bendandi, a “scientist” who believed that aligned planets could change Earth’s gravitational force and trigger earthquakes. He’s thought to have correctly predicted a 1915 earthquake in Avezzano, Italy, but he didn’t become famous until he “correctly” predicted a January 4, 1923 earthquake in Le Marche. (He was actually two days off.) It was close enough for Benito Mussolini, though, who later granted Bendandi a knighthood.
Some in the city of L’Aquila, Italy answered that odd question with a resounding yes. An April 6, 2009 earthquake that was predicted by Giampaolo Giuliani killed 308 people. Now the city’s prosecutors are considering charging seven researchers at the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute (INGV) and members of the city’s Major Risks Committee with manslaughter.
The prosecutors say the committee could be considered criminally negligent for telling the townspeople that there was no need to evacuate. A formal investigation has been opened, but charges haven’t yet been filed.
As reported in Life in Italy:
“Those involved were highly qualified individuals who should have provided the public with different answers,” said L’Aquila’s chief prosecutor, Alfredo Rossini. “It was not the case that we received no warning, because there had already been tremors. However, the advice given was that there was no need for people to leave their homes”.
Giuliani, the man who predicted the quake, works at the National Laboratories at Gran Sasso, though he has been misreported in both Italian and American media outlets as a physicist, seismologist, and a collaborator with the National Institute of Nuclear Physics. According to Science Insider, Giuliani’s work on earthquakes is a “hobby” and seismologists do not use the radon tests he cited, since statistically they have failed to accurately predict quakes.
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Did a Seismologist Accurately Predict the Italian Quake?
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80beats: Science Via Twitter: Post-Earthquake Tweets Can Provide Seismic Data
Bad Astronomy: Do rainbow clouds foretell earthquakes?
Image: United States Geological Survey
Musical acts have a similar epidemiology as the flu. Both start out as small, localized phenomena and then gain momentum with surprising speed, until everyone is hacking up the same virus and every radio station is blaring the same tune. Google caught on recently and created Flu Trends, which tracks the spread of the flu by charting user searches for flu-related words. And a team of Israeli researchers have come up with software that uses similar logic to predict the next big musical act.
This “music trends” software tracks searches for songs or bands on Gnutella, a giant peer-to-peer file sharing network, and locates where the searches are generated. Since new bands often develop popularity through local gigs (“American Idol” is an exception), the software works because it can tracks momentum of grassroots movements. Based on the local ranking of the searches and how fast these rankings change, the software can predict the next breakout band.