A careful listener at David Alexander’s inaugural lecture, ‘Around the world in 80 disasters’ (7 October), might have been excused a hint of cognitive dissonance – his tone was consistently humourous throughout, but the thrust of his argument was no joke. The way humans deal with disasters, and the way many academics study them, he argued, is deeply misguided.
Like many researchers into disaster risk, Prof Alexander, knows the exact moment he became interested in the discipline, because it was triggered by him surviving a natural disaster. Unlike most, however, he can pinpoint it – perhaps with a little spurious accuracy – down to the nearest tenth of a second.
Not long after receiving his PhD in Geography from UCL, the young researcher was travelling on a train in Southern Italy on the evening on 23 November 1980. At 7:34pm (“and fifty-eight point two seconds”, he adds) the earth shook, the carriages swayed, and the train ground to a halt in a dark and chaotic Pompeii station. Almost 3,000 people were killed that evening, in the most deadly earthquake Europe has seen in almost a century.
Thirty-three years later, after a career in disaster risk that has taken him to Italy, the US and Switzerland, David Alexander is back at UCL.