A tsunami warning system is no guaranteeA tsunami warning system is no guarantee

The Nation - Wednesday, January 05, 2005

An earthquake and tsunami early warning system is crucial for saving lives, but cannot guarantee total safety, according to Nobel laureate Robert C Richardson yesterday.

If such a system had been in place December 26, scientists around the world would not have been forced to helplessly watch the tsunami unfold in the Indian Ocean. They were ill equipped to warn local officials about the magnitude of the tsunami, which eventually turned the region into a pool of death and forever altered its coastline.

Richardson, professor of physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, is in Bangkok to speak at a series of speeches called the “Bridges” dialogues sponsored by the International Peace Foundation. In a brief interview with The Nation, he said early warning systems are “not completely” safe.

“But the system should be there,” Richardson said after a lecture on training scientists for the future at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Pathum Thani.

“Scientists have responsibility. Geologists and geophysicists should come forward to help nations,” said the winner of the Nobel Prize for physics. He promised to lend his weight to the global call for an early warning system for the Indian ocean.

“It’s not an individual country’s responsibility. It is a collective responsibility,” he said. “The US government has a bigger role to play. It should make funds available for scientists to help them research,” Richardson said.

He also countered criticism of the US government’s initial “stingy” response to tsunami survivors.

“[George W Bush] is not an expert,” he said. “It takes time to assess the situation. I don’t think there was any reluctance by the US government.”

Richardson was a Nobel Prize co-recipient, along with Douglas Osheroff and David Lee, for discovering “superfluidity” in the helium-3 isotope. Researchers have used part of their discovery to test theories of how cosmic strings can form in the universe.

Scientists believe “strings”, which are thought to have had a role in forming galaxies, were created a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

During his lecture at AIT, Richardson focussed on nanotechnology, nanobiotechnology and nanoscope science and on different projects at Cornell University. “The transfer of new technology is an important responsibility of a research university,” he said.

In his autobiography, he wrote: “The research environment at Cornell has been superb with an unbroken string of talented graduate students, close colleagues in both theory and experiment, and a team of technical support specialists who helped make everything work.”

Arun Devnath