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Dr. Ernest Zebrowski Writes Book About Natural Disasters

While natural disasters have oftentimes been hard to predict, it’s easy to predict mankind’s unwavering fascination with it all.

Tapping into this fascination is Dr. Ernest Zebrowski, a physics professor at Pennsylvania College of Technology, who has penned a new book, “Perils of a Restless Planet: Scientific Perspectives on Natural Disasters.” Within its 302 pages, Zebrowski compares and contrasts ancient and modern natural disasters and examines natural disasters to reveal the intimate relationship between science and society. He also describes the current state of knowledge on natural disasters and focuses on the science behind disaster prediction and prevention.

“Things are not permanent on our planet. Unanticipated events of incredible scale can happen and have happened,” Zebrowski comments. “Disasters make us wonder about man’s place in the universe. They generate a lot of philosophical questions, as well as practical questions. To the engineering community, how can humans prevent disasters? To the scientific community, how can we anticipate them? To the individual human, does the risk of disaster affect my choice of where I live or how I live? I think that there probably isn’t an individual who isn’t affected by these questions even if they aren’t affected by specific disasters.”

Zebrowski says there are numerous examples of natural disasters which have killed thousands because people didn’t understand, scientifically, the nature of disasters. He believes historical examination of natural disasters allows scientists to prepare societies for events that will occur, not within the coming weeks, but within the next 10 years or the next generation.

“I know that a lot of people complain about the increasing complexity of building codes, for instance. But, as a matter of fact, these building codes have protected many, many people from perishing in events from earthquakes to hurricanes to major flooding. The engineering principles are different depending on the kind of hazard one is looking at,” he states.

Zebrowski teaches a course at Penn College titled “Natural Disasters and Civilization.” His new book is part of the course’s required reading materials and is also being used in other academic settings across the country and world. Published by Cambridge University Press, the work has gained reviews and listings in a number of publications including The Chronicle for Higher Education, New Scientist, and Library Journal. The latter indicated Zebrowski’s examination “provides a unique look at the intersection of humanity and earth processes … it provides an excellent look at the science behind disaster prediction and prevention.” His book can be ordered through a variety of book vendors and is on-the-shelf locally at the Penn College Store and Otto’s Bookstore in downtown Williamsport.

In addition to the academic and scientific communities, Zebrowski believes general readers who are intrigued by scientific and environmental concepts will find the book of value. In its review of the book, New Scientist magazine agrees, stating, “Zebrowski has even tackled one of the biggest stumbling blocks for scientists trying to talk to ‘outsiders,’ by giving a concise summary of the evolution of scientific thought and tracing the origins of the fragmented, specialized science world of today… it is an excellent reminder for scientists of how alien their view of the world can seem to an outsider, and should get them thinking about how their work interacts with society. Conversely, it tells lay people about the scientific method. In fact… this book would be a valuable teaching aid, both for potential scientists and those who need to know about science from another perspective overall, this book is such a good read.”

Whoever the reader is, Zebrowski’s work aims to stimulate a sense of inquiry. And, while there is still much we don’t know about natural disasters, he sees reason for optimism because technology continues to expand our comprehension.

“Technology enhances and extends our feeble human senses in ways our ancestors would never have dreamed of,” he writes. “We map the atmosphere and geography of our planet with satellite telemetry, and we probe Earth’s interior by analyzing the reflections and refractions of seismic waves detected with modern microelectronic seismographs. In the social arena, we have begun to make progress in reducing global rates of population growth. We have made great strides in the early detection and containment of new infectious diseases, before they become epidemics. We continue to achieve these successes through the fallible but self-correcting process of scientific inquiry.”

The Penn College professor says it is crucial to consistently study such events because that investigation can help limit tragic consequences in the future.

“The future, and indeed the very survival, of our complex global society is intimately dependent on continued scientific research,” Zebrowski writes. “Because Mother Nature barely whispers her answers to our most compelling questions, we must all listen, listen, listen, paying attention not just when she howls, but also when she talks to us ever so gently in a language we still don’t fully understand.”

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