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Earthquake triggers soul-searching in Chilean science journalist

March 1, 2010 posted in Sci.Journalism 1 comment >>
By Nicolás Luco, El Mercurio

Dr. Lorena Norambuena smiles after recovering GMO carrots that should have been under strict climate conditions. They live.

Dr. Verónica Palma points at a microscope buried under two fallen incubators.

Pre graduate students clean a lab that received 20 cm of water in the Universidad de Chile.

Like never before, after an earthquake, top editors fall upon science journalists to try to explain the disaster. We rush to our seismology connections. We raise questions in Facebook to see if new ideas come in. Mail our international contacts studying Chile's crust: mainly in France.

In the end, the newspaper comes forth with a great map, explanatory interviews, and testimonies of the upheaval over the net. Simultaneously, there is this feeling that people are dying or dead; the Navy has lost its main seaport; crops have disappeared; wine and fruit exports are endangered; hospitals are down. No housing, no food, no water. Science seems something disposable.

But we must lead. We must tell the stories of scientists. We must explain the losses in labs, in researchers' work, in buildings; we must bridge the National Research authorities with those scientists and students who feel their future vanishes. The country must continue its science work. So there we are, pushing a cause that may seem second priority when there is no water, food, energy.

Today ( Monday 1st March 2010), I toured the main biology labs of the University of Chile. A newly built building housed key labs of molecular research, immunity, with sophisticated instruments: the air conditioning water system on the roof had poured down and flooded the third floor labs.

"Will this $10,000 dollar microscope work again?" asked Dr. Verónica Palma. She told me she had lost 5 years work. The data were in the internet, but the working cells, some human, some animal, had all died. The elders did their preventive work better, said Dr. María Barra, "we had lived though hard earthquakes, so it is instinctive to prevent... I did not suffer damages in my lab".

Public opinion is becoming more and more enraged: the Navy Research Organization (the Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service- SHOA) published a tsunami warning minutes after the earthquake; the Central Emergency Office discarded it and said that no tsunami was in store because the center of the earthquake was inland. The tsunami surely did come, killing hundreds. It even got to Robinson Crusoe Island three hours after the quake, flushed through houses and trees and cars, carrying a dozen people into the ocean forever; no warning had been issued to Robinson Crusoe.

Worst of all, but more sophisticated, is the fact that in June 2009, French and Chilean seismologists had published a paper on exactly the area most hurt by the earthquake, warning that a big one was expected and calculating the speed and direction of the movement of the plaques. Why was this not heeded? First reason: because scientists tend to speak among themselves; second, because we science journalists did not care to examine the paper. I myself, for one, have just come in touch with it when I was reporting hours after there was not much to do.

This report is from Nicolás Luco, science journalist with newspaper El Mercurio (Santiago de Chile) and Director of the Chilean Association of Science Journalists, ACHIPEC. In exchanges with Nicolas, he added that the great telescopes suffered nothing; their engineering worked.

Related document

Why didn't someone read this before the quake?
posted on May 6, 2010 by  Murfomurf
I am amazed that with such carefully collected and analysed data, that no one took the time to make preparations to minimise damage and loss of life. The region is known to be unstable, yet the warnings in the strain data were ignored. Are scientists as poorly regarded in Chile as they are in Australia, I wonder?

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