Sunday, a master and good friend offered friends and me the opportunity and pleasure to visit an exhibition in Padua about the current and future value of Galileo Galilei’s achievements.

The very following night, L’Aquila and the Abruzzo region in Italy were struck by a relatively strong earthquake, with relatively very high damages and casualties.
A very strong connection ties Galileo’s achievements to methods and politics to manage natural disasters.

Italy’s popular history has Galileo as pretty much the single-handed founder of modern science. The show does a good job of vindicating this and pointing to how Galileo’s original findings still are relevant to today’s science and the future.

Current consensus ascribes the severity of damages caused by earthquakes in Italy to lower than possible preparation especially in architecture.

The immediate aftermath of the event saw an online and media debate about “predictions” of the quake and quakes in general and how they were turned down as quack by the country’s general field safety (“protezione civile”) officer.

Both this lack of preparation and the online debate strongly connect to the exhibition’s messages. They bolster the exhibition’s point that Galileo’s original results are key to our modern, scientific view of the world and essential to address our future now.

Here are the reasons.

The exhibition highlights four revolutionary and future-relevant legacies of Galileo’s work:

  1. Astronomy, revolutionized through courage to trust empirical observation: a telescope was an obviously unreliable tool showing things that “obviously” contradicted common, revered wisdom. Still, those observations compelled us – in the end – to change our world view with far-reaching practical, economical, philosophical and political impacts.
    Ever since, science has been about the courage to trash earlier wisdom based on careful scrutiny of evidence, however dubious and counterintuitive.
  2. Dynamics: simple observations, smart quantitative modeling and a thought experiment demolished an understanding of motion that rested on both a thousand years of authoritative study and perceptions honed in millions years of primate evolution.
    Within this, the revolutionary experiment of different objects falling at the same speed in “vacuum”. As vacuum at the time was empirically impervious and theoretically debatable and challenged, this may have been the most innovative thought experiment ever.
  3. Relativity: generalizing the result above into a world view that inherently challenges any and all philosophical absolutes – based on such obvious “facts” as objects in a ship that moves smoothly behaving as if it were static.
  4. Materials science: first the basic intuition that deep quantitative reasons prevent scaling up designs sustainably – when the scale of a structure grows, weights and stresses grow with the cube of the scale. From this intuition, precious tools emerged to assess and estimate the quantity of material and size of pillars and braces required to sustain different structures.
    This was a key step in opening the way to taking guesswork out of the art of designing and building, ultimately allowing to build the notion, practice and mystique of engineering that all but defined modern western civilization before and after the industrial revolution.

The debate about earthquake prediction began as crowd-pleasing, sensation-seeking pseudoscience. Then, thanks to wiser popular science commentaries, a more constructive discussion about preparing for disasters.

The earthquake happened days after a scientist announced a method for “predicting” such events, and the head of public field safety (“protezione civile”) rebuked it as unreliable and unactionable pseudoscience.

When a (different) earthquake actually took place, the knee-jerk reaction was to regard the prediction as vindicated and challenge how it was managed.

The exhibition shows how Galileo’s revolutionary achievements are essential to criticizing similar approaches, and so still warrant daily rehearsal, popularization and application. 
Indeed, however tempting the conclusion may have felt, and however valid the earthquake prediction method may have been, a severe earthquake following a public prediction of something similar has nothing to do with scientific validation of a scientific prediction or method.

The prediction method and related scientific model of earthquakes may sometime be validated with appropriate application of scientific method – Galileo’s approach, ultimately. Still, regarding them as proven today and useful tomorrow based on the events is as sterile as it is delusive.

Far more important for the well being and happiness of our community is a thoughtful, rational application of statistical analysis and economical decision methods that are ultimately rooted in the same fundamental achievements by Galileo that the exhibition highlights. These methods can be used to support the political, social, economical, ethical and business case to direct significant community resources to preventing building failures and their consequences when earthquakes will happen. And happen they will, and well within the planning horizon of most voting citizens alive, dead or wounded in a quake-prone country like ours.

Thankfully, public debate has moved on to this, leaving behind the quarrel about authorities neglecting warnings from a scientist supposedly proven right.

May this help our country address natural disasters we know will occur, mitigate damages and reduce suffering in the future, sustain our happiness and prosperity. This will be the greatest relief to people living there and in similar regions, beyond immediate rescue.

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