What doomed the Titanic is well known, at least in outline. On a moonless night in the North Atlantic, the liner hit an iceberg and disaster ensued, with 1,500 lives lost.
Hundreds of books, studies and official inquires have addressed the deeper question of how a ship that was so costly and so well built — a ship declared to be unsinkable— could have ended so terribly. The theories vary widely, placing the blame on everything from inept sailors to flawed rivets.
Now, more than a century after the liner went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912, two new studies argue that rare states of nature played major roles in the catastrophe.
The first says Earth’s nearness to the Moon and the Sun — a proximity not matched in more than a thousand years — resulted in record tides that help explain why the Titanic encountered so much ice, including the fatal iceberg.
And a second, put forward by a Titanic historian from Britain,contends that the icy waters created ideal conditions for an unusual type of mirage that hid icebergs from lookouts and confused a nearby ship as to the liner’s identity, delaying rescue efforts for hours.
The author, Tim Maltin, said his explanation helps remove the stain of blunder from what he regards as a tragedy.
“There were no heroes, no villains,” Maltin said in an interview. “Instead, there were a lot of human beings trying to do their best in the situation as they saw it.” The title of his book, Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night, alludes to how mirages could have wrought havoc with human observations.
Scholars of the Titanic, as well as scientists, are debating the new theories. Some question whether natural factors can outweigh the significance of ineptitude. Others find the mirage explanation plausible — but only in limited scenarios. Overall, though, many experts are applauding the fresh perspectives.
“It’s important new information that can help explain some of the old mysteries,” said George M. Behe, author of On Board RMS Titanic, a 2010 book that chronicles the letters, postcards and accounts of the ship’s crew and passengers.
The Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship of its time, a glittering icon of the good life. It carried ten millionaires, including Isidor Straus of Macy’s, then the world’s largest department store. Like hundreds of other passengers, he perished when the ship went down — the water calm and the sky luminous with stars.
From the start, news reports and inquiries said that the ice in the North Atlantic was unusually bad that year. The New York Times, in an article shortly after the sinking, quoted United States officials as saying that the winter had produced “an enormously large crop of icebergs.”
Recently, a team of researchers from Texas State University-San Marcos and Sky & Telescope magazine found an apparent explanation in the heavens. They published their findings in the magazine’s April issue.
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.
“We don’t claim that our idea is conclusive,” Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State, said in an interview. But, he added, the team continues to gather new supporting evidence.
Olson said that after the study’s publication, “we found there had been remarkable tidal events around the globe — in England and New Zealand.” A Sydney newspaper, he noted, had a headline that told of “record tides.”
The icy waters that night created ideal conditions for an unusual kind of mirage, according to Maltin, who owns a public relations firm in London and has written three books on the Titanic. Andrew T. Young, an astronomer and mirage specialist at San Diego State University, helped him refine his theory.
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.
In an interview, Maltin said he first learned of the possibility of cold mirages when reading a 1992 British inquiry on the Titanic’s sinking. It suggested that the icy waters could have cooled the adjacent air and warped images that confused the Californian, a ship nearby that could have rushed to the Titanic’s aid but instead did nothing.
Fascinated, Maltin, who sailed boats in his youth, dug into navigational records and found that both the Californian and the Titanic had moved into the icy Labrador Current that night and had encountered conditions ideal for cold mirages. He then hunted through reams of official and unofficial testimony to see what people saw — or what they thought they saw.
A drama of misperceptions ensues. 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.
Maltin cites three lookouts on the Titanic who, despite the night’s remarkable clarity, testified to seeing an unusual haze on the horizon.
George Symons described the distant view as “rather hazy.”
Frederick Fleet told an official inquiry of a “slight haze” on the horizon before the Titanic struck the iceberg. He said it was significant enough to have discussed with a colleague.
Reginald Lee, his shipmate, described the iceberg as “a dark mass that came through that haze.”
Maltin suggests that the speeding Titanic would have slowed down if its crew and officers had understood how the cold night was bending light in confusing ways.
As for the failed rescue, Maltin cites testimony that he sees as revealing the role of natural trickery. The Californian — a modest steamer with a small smokestack — knew the luxury liner was nearby but wrote off sightings of its lights and distress rockets.
Maltin calculates that the two ships were about ten miles apart when both stopped and began drifting in the Labrador Current. But cold mirages, he says, let the crews see the vessels as much closer — on the order of five miles. One Titanic officer said he could see the Californian’s porthole lights.
This sense of closeness — as well as the funhouse distortions inherent in the play of mirages — helped create a disastrous series of false impressions, Maltin argues.
For instance, he says the mirages probably would have altered the Californian’s view of the Titanic’s overall shape, and illustrates his point with photographs of modern ships seen in mirage distortions. One series reveals a ship’s hull to be greatly expanded while its masts and superstructure are collapsed to near invisibility.
He also cites supporting evidence from the inquiries.
“There was nothing at all about it to resemble a passenger boat,” James Gibson of the Californian testified.
The Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, said the nearby ship seemed to be a medium-size steamer rather than a giant passenger liner bearing four huge smokestacks. “I am positive,” he testified, “it was not the Titanic.”
Some historians have gone so far as to posit the presence of a mystery ship — a needless claim, according to Maltin and his mirage theory.
He says optic trickery also confused the Californian’s view of the Titanic’s distress rockets. Ships of the day often used company rockets for identification and signaling. Some of the Californian’s crew testified that the flares of the nearby ship looked odd.
“These rockets did not appear to go very high,” recalled Herbert Stone, the ship’s second officer. “They were only about half the height of the steamer’s masthead light.”
But those perceptions, Maltin says, could have been caused by a mirage: The Titanic’s rockets might have indeed soared high but simply appeared low compared with the looming vessel.
The Californian’s captain is often vilified as irresponsible and criminally negligent. But Maltin says Lord may have genuinely mistaken the giant liner for a small ship.
The title for Maltin’s book comes from the concluding remarks the captain made when asked by an inquiry about the causes of the disaster.
“It was,” he replied, “a very deceiving night.”
Published in The New York Times on April 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.