On Physicists and the law: how society has misplaced its views of science and its community

While I have often said that the community of physicists works for the common gaining of knowledge and to derive infinite mental pleasure out of that, I have also asserted that little is done towards blindly implementing it—that is what engineers are for: the Engineering – this is where the semi-skilled workers realize the work of better minds… [The] Oompah-Loompahs of science, as Sheldon Cooper puts it.

But, fun apart, my argument has always been struck, perhaps even beheaded many a time in the past. And today, I learned the height of it all—although I was quite late in finding out. Perhaps the greatest opponent to my belief is social paradigm. Non-scientists (who are the ones supposed to understand this in the first place) fail to catch on to the fact that a scientist has so much on their hands that to conform to complicated social ways becomes terribly troublesome. And, needless to mention, it is quite meaningless to hold them legally responsible for it.

Dr Adlène Hicheur

Today I read the editorial on a recent issue of Nature (Oct. 13, 2011) about the singular case of the French-Algerian physicist Dr Hicheur, which reminded me of the villain from Iron Man 2 (he is a physicist.) As it happens, the French think that Dr Hicheur, a high-energy physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Laussane, was plotting terrorist attacks in France.

Whether his work was so alien to the (forgive me for saying this, but) incompetent authorities who captured him on this account, that it appeared to them like a diabolical plot to blow up France; or whether they just needed a reason to feel safe and so decided to catch somebody and call him a criminal, is beyond me. Either way, Dr Hicheur has been in jail since 2009. Yes, he missed the LHC experiments altogether.

As nature rightly put it, the continued imprisonment of the French-Algerian physicist highlights the need for scientists to defend the human rights of all colleagues.

Speaking of human rights, as the Nature Editorial rightly points out, although holding a person for so long without trial is legal under France’s anti-terror laws, it is a clear violation of the physicist’s human rights.

I seem to be borrowing heavily from Nature, but here is a small paragraph that says it best, that this is nothing new: “Persecution of scientists, and physicists in particular, is nothing new. During the cold war, researchers on both sides of the iron curtain suffered for their political views. In the United States, Robert Oppenheimer’s career was ruined by rumours of communist sympathies. And Soviet scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov spent much of the 1980s in internal exile for his outspoken views on human rights and arms control.”

Apparently, Dr Hicheur—whose online exchanges are being blocked by authorities—has been quite forgotten until recently when his defenders helplessly confessed that he can be held another 12 months before the French courts come to a decision on whether to go ahead with his trial or not.

The L’Aquila Earthquake

What prompted me to write this article was not Dr Hicheur’s case alone. Just last month six Italian physicists were jailed and are now standing trial for the manslaughter of 300 citizens for failing to predict an earthquake in the town of L’Aquila.

While that sounds like a line right out of a fairy tale, it is, sadly, true. As ABC News reported it, back in March of 2009, the panel of scientists and a local official, Bernardo di Bernardinis (who is the seventh man charged,) had a meet and the scientists declared that there was no danger then. Six days later, the earthquake struck, understandably killing many (around 309) and making as many as 7,000 people homeless.

Stating that the community was misinformed and misled, the very able community, which can take care of itself, at L’Aquila, has lodged a case of manslaughter against the six scientists. And the naive court (which in an idealistic world is supposed to have a mind of its own) has now brought them to trial, successfully hindering scientific growth.

Who was to blame when Mt Vesuvius temporarily wiped out Sicily from the face of the earth? Who is to blame every time the San Andreas fault crack open? It is nature. Nature decides, nature goes ahead with it. And as people living in such places, they ought to expect such things and be prepared with it. One does not pull the trigger at the bidding of another’s mind. It is one’s own that rules our actions.

Why did the people not look to the gods they so deeply believe in? Do they then consider physicists worthy replacements? If physicists indeed could prevent such calamities and rightly predict it every time, why would they be on Earth? They would rather fancy exploring the remainder of the universe.

Why is the weatherman not blamed everyday he reports faulty weather (which is every other day)? Because people understand. But with dead kin on their hands, man’s logical reasoning centre seems to spontaneously shift from his head to his chest.

Looking on the brighter side, unlike hardly anybody coming to Dr Hicheur’s aid (and CERN even looking the other way,) the reaction to this outrageous incident has been rather good—although more ought to be done. Soon after this shocking incident (it quite sent me staggering backwards in disbelief) about 5,000 physicists have signed a petition condemning this unprecedented court action. This is well reflected in a Nature article from July this year (2011,) on human-rights issues among scientists and in scientific collaborations.

While Dr Hicheur stays hopeful of walking free soon, the seven Italians, if convicted, face 12 year jail terms. And physicists will expectedly cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

In the meanwhile, if you choose to do the right thing and support the physicists mentioned in this article and probably many others who are not, then speak out on your social networking profiles and like or +1 or share this article. You can also add your views as comments below.