Not since Galileo ran afoul of the Vatican have Italian scientists been held responsible for natural circumstances well beyond their control.

Last week an Italian court found six geologists and seismologists guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to prison for failing to predict an April 2009 earthquake that leveled the ancient town of L'Aquila and killed more than 300 people.

The scientists, Italy's leading experts on earthquakes, were members of a Major Risk Commission that was summoned to L'Aquila six days before the earthquake to assess a series of tremors in the area.

Prosecutors say the scientists offered "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory" advice on the prospects for a major earthquake.

The problem, however, is the inherent impossibility of predicting an earthquake. Scientists can identify geological factors indicating that a particular place is likely to experience an earthquake, but they cannot predict when that will happen.

In court a prosecutor compared predicting an earthquake with predicting the course of a hurricane - a ridiculous analogy even for a layman.

The impact of the verdict was immediate. More than a dozen other seismologists working for government agencies immediately resigned.

Ideally, the Italian appellate courts will decriminalize science and overturn the verdicts. Meanwhile, scientists in the United States and around the world should rally to the cause of their unjustly prosecuted colleagues.