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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
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 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
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 What makes a man?
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline
 COMMUNICATING SCIENCE
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Science and tragedy

Although, at the time of writing, the death toll and the extent of the destruction wrought by the violent earthquake that hit south-east Asia and the tidal waves – known as tsunamis – it triggered remains provisional, the scale of the tragedy is already colossal: about 200 000 dead and more than 5 million homeless. What is more, there is the international and European dimension: around 2 000 Swedes and 1 000 Germans died or are missing – and these are still not the final figures. 

As always, a tragedy raises questions of responsibilities. Were there policy failings? Technical shortcomings? Delays in responding? 

Improvements are always possible, of course, but the very nature of a ‘natural disaster’ is that – while not entirely absolving humans of responsibility – it surpasses our means to deal with and even understand the forces at work. But science can help enhance our knowledge. By pure coincidence, the dossier featured in this issue relates precisely – and unfortunately – to such events. 

For if there is one subject that the Asian tragedy has highlighted, it is the importance of putting in place coordinated early-warning systems for earthquakes and, in particular, the absence of effective monitoring of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.  

This is a deficiency that must be corrected. As explained in the dossier, delegations from 55 countries and 30 organisations will be meeting on 16 February in Brussels for the Third Earth Observation Summit. These member countries of the GEO international network have decided to coordinate their existing Earth observation systems – that have a crucial role in this field – to create a ‘system of systems’.

While such progress is welcome and necessary, it will not be sufficient. We must be careful not to see in this the ultimate solution. Even if the warning had been sounded early in Asia, the disaster would not have been completely avoided. Whatever the expected progress, given in particular the growth in population, similarly devastating disasters will inevitably occur in the future. 

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