April 12, 2012

The Iceberg Was Framed

There were no heroes, no villains . ... Instead, there were a lot of human beings trying to do their best in the situation as they saw it.
Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the death of more than 1500 of its passengers and crew. As one might expect when that kind of milestone rolls around, there’s lots of renewed talk about the wreck and what happened that night. Hey, if the occasion warrants a rollout of the 3D version of Cameron’s movie (which Jezebel watched again so you don’t have to) and a Blu-Ray version of A Night to Remember, we might as well try to better understand the actual event, right?

That better understanding comes in the form of two new theories about how Titanic came to be slashed by an iceberg. One, from a Brit named Tim Maltin (whose quote is set forth above), involving a cold air mirages:
Most people know mirages as natural phenomena caused when hot air near the Earth’s surface bends light rays upward. In a desert, the effect prompts lost travelers to mistake patches of blue sky for pools of water.

But another kind of mirage occurs when cold air bends light rays downward. In that case, observers can see objects and settings far over the horizon. The images often undergo quick distortions — not unlike the wavy reflections in a funhouse mirror.

* * *

Mr. Maltin’s book shows how mirages could have created false horizons that hid the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookouts. By this theory, the intersection of dark sea and starry sky would have looked blurry, reducing the contrast with the looming iceberg.
If the crew had understood the phenomenon, Maltin argues, the crew would have slowed the ship and been better able to deal with the ice.

As for the ice itself, researchers from a Texas university and Sky & Telescope magazine offered an additional complication:
The team discovered that Earth had come unusually close to the Sun and Moon that winter, enhancing their gravitational pulls on the ocean and producing record tides. The rare orbits took place between December 1911 and February 1912 — about two months before the disaster.

The researchers suggest that the high tides refloated masses of icebergs traditionally stuck along the coastlines of Labrador and Newfoundland and sent them adrift into the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
I lead off with the quote from Maltin because I think it gets to the heart of things, even if his particular theory doesn’t pan out. “Human error” is a broad heading under which falls everything from outright stupidity (maybe even malevolence) to errors made in good faith. There’s a world of difference in saying that someone did the wrong thing for understandable reasons versus simply fucking up. As I’ve said before, real life is rarely black and white.
Titanic calls Carpathia in the night
Through nothingness, through 57 miles
And the sparks still fly, down through history
And down through every walk of life
It’s also worth remembering, on this 100th anniversary, that of the 2200 people on board Titanic, about one-third actually survived the wreck. That’s largely due to the fact that Titanic was equipped with a state of the art wireless setup and Jack Phillips, the senior operator, stayed at his post until the ship went down:
Wireless was still a relatively young technology at the time of the Titanic's maiden voyage.

The Marconi company, the Edwardian equivalent of a top technology brand, had put its wireless operators on board some of the more prestigious ships.

The Titanic, as the showcase of an ambitious, optimistic era, had the biggest and best wireless equipment in the world.
At the time, the wireless was used more as a high-tech amusement for passengers (who sent news along to friends and loved ones during the voyage). Ships did share information, but the idea that the wireless was first and foremost a safety system hadn’t yet caught on.

It did after Titanic went down and Carpathia was called to rescue the survivors. It was, perhaps, an epoch defining moment. The theme off the last album by The Tangent, COMM, is (not surprisingly) communication. The highlight, for me at least, is “Titanic Calls Carpathia” (quoted above), in which lyricist/vocalist/keyboardist/prime mover Andy Tillison argues that the rescue of the Titanic survivors was really the dawn of the digital age. Without the ability to reach out “through nothingness, through 57 miles,” many (if not most) of those who survived the initial sinking of Titanic would not have survived.

We take that communication, and that connection, for granted today. Our first instincts when some kind of calamity occurs is to call 9-1-1 and record the event on video, which then gets uploaded for all the world to see. It wasn’t just a different time and place where Titanic went down, it was a different world. It’s worth remembering that on this 100th anniversary and marveling in the speed of progress.

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