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Transportation Technology

Did the Titanic Sink Due To an Optical Illusion? 166 166

Hugh Pickens writes "According to new research by British historian Tim Maltin, records by several ships in the area where the Titanic sank show atmospheric conditions were ripe for super refraction, a bending of light that caused a false horizon, concealing the iceberg that sank the Titanic in a mirage layer, which prevented the Titanic's lookouts from seeing the iceberg in time to avoid collision. According to the new theory, Titanic was sailing from Gulf Stream waters into the frigid Labrador Current, where the air column was cooling from the bottom up. This created a thermal inversion, with layers of cold air below layers of warmer air, creating a superior mirage. The theory also explains why the freighter Californian was unable to identify the Titanic on the moonless night, because even though the Titanic sailed into the Californian's view, it appeared too small to be the great ocean liner. The abnormally stratified air may also have disrupted signals sent by the Titanic by Morse Lamp to the Californian to no avail. This is not the first time atmospheric conditions have been postulated as a factor in the disaster that took 1,517 lives. An investigation in 1992 by the British government's Marine Accident Investigation Branch also suggested that super refraction may have played a role in the disaster (PDF, see page 13), but that possibility went unexplored until Maltin mined weather records, survivors' testimony and long-forgotten ships' logs."
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Did the Titanic Sink Due To an Optical Illusion?

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  • Re:Ptheh. (Score:5, Informative)

    by zippthorne (748122) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @04:52PM (#39241697) Journal

    I'm not sure that that would've mattered either, as the "water-tight" compartments weren't sealed at the top. Interestingly, they're still not sealed at the top, which i suspect contributed to the sinking of the costa concordia recently.

  • Re:Ptheh. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 04, 2012 @05:07PM (#39241779)

    They don't fully seal the tops, because you're only supposed to breach 1 or 2 in case of trouble. If you breach 4 or 5, the ship won't stay afloat on the remaining ones (for long). The top of the breached compartments would end up bursting due to the water pressure contained in those compartments if they were fully sealed at the top.

    Both Titanic and Concordia stayed afloat long enough to evacuate safely. In Titanic's case, there were not enough lifeboats, and the ones that were launched were not filled to capacity. In Concordia's case, the captain waited so long to order the lifeboats deployed, that many were unusable due to the severe list (tilt) of the ship. In both cases, high speed impact tore open too many compartments to save either ship, but the design worked long enough to move people to lifeboats and deploy them.

    There have been many passenger shipwrecks where loss of life was minimal, because another ship came alongside and took the passengers to safety without using lifeboats at all.

  • by VinylRecords (1292374) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @05:15PM (#39241861)

    The 'optical illusion' might have added to the many reasons that the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage but it certainly was not the main cause. The ship was legendary at the time before it had even made its maiden voyage. The largest and most elaborate and ornate vessel of its time. A floating palace. A moving island on the sea. The Titanic.

    The ship's captain and others postulated that running the ship at full speed from its last stop in Europe all the way to America would make enormous headlines. If the ship arrived in New York ahead of schedule by a day it would be a media sensation and basically the best advertising that they could buy. So the ship's operators plowed through the ocean at the fastest possible speed (which was a common practice though).

    To make things worse the ship's operators both ignored and missed warnings about dangerous fields of ice that they were approaching. An area of ocean crowded with frozen solid and tremendously large icebergs. A nearby ship, the Californian, stopped near where the Titanic sank that night, only a few miles away, because they were extremely cautious and nervous about smashing the ship into a mass of ice. So they waited to resume travel until the morning. The Californian even sent messages to the Titanic warning them of the ice fields. Those messages were essentially ignored.

    At the time that Titanic was built it was considered unsinkable. There had been accidents in the past where large ships had smashed head first into icebergs and stayed above water. And the Titanic had been built stronger, sturdier, and tougher than any ship ever made. The Titanic's captain even said before the first voyage, "there is no condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that".

    The ship is going full speed. It's traveling into an area where there are icebergs the size of small islands. The lookouts are not equipped with binoculars and are not aware of what kind of field they are traveling into. The moon is black so there is no light over the ocean. The water is completely calm so they can't hear waves crashing against the icebergs to warn them (years later it is then known that calm water indicates fields of ice). And by the time that the lookouts spot the iceberg...they are traveling full speed right for it and there isn't enough time to turn. They were traveling full speed, blind, deaf, and into a death trap.

    The ship smashes into the iceberg and grinds its side into the mass of ice tearing a few small holes into the side of the ship. The tears are only a few feet long and inches wide but the ocean water is relentless. The Titanic was designed to survive the front two below deck compartments flooding with water. Or any other four compartments located below deck flooding completely. Instead, the first five compartments are almost instantly flooded from ocean water raging through the breaches, the ship is doomed. The ship will sink in less than two hours and there is nothing to stop it. Trapped in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go and lifeboats for less than half of the passengers.

    While there were only half as many lifeboats as would have been necessary to save everyone, over two-thirds of people on the ship were not able to escape. One reason is that people were so zealous about the "women and children" first rule that they were sending half empty lifeboats off of the ship without loading any men on them. Also they were loading lifeboats according to your travel class. First class passengers were more likely to be saved. Third class passengers had to wait their turns. That's why for the blockbuster Titanic they had a first class woman paired with a third class man. Those two had the best and worst odds of surviving the disaster based on lifeboat placement.

    So no it wasn't an optical illusion. It was a series of many things that contributed to the Titanic sinking on its maiden voyage. Poor lookouts. Dangerous speeds. Lack of modern understanding of calm water indicating dangerous conditions. No moonlight. Purposefully ignoring warnings of dangerous conditions including icebergs. Even without an optical illusion that ship unfortunately still sinks.

  • Re:Ptheh. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Stormy Dragon (800799) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @05:19PM (#39241891) Homepage

    ... The watertight doors on the Titanic weren't open when it went down. That's part of why it went down nose first, because the front section of the ship flooded faster than the rear.

  • Re:Dumb question (Score:4, Informative)

    by Stormy Dragon (800799) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @05:23PM (#39241919) Homepage

    There's also an International Ice Patrol [wikipedia.org] that flies around the north atlantic looking for icebergs.

  • Re:Ptheh. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Beardo the Bearded (321478) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @05:45PM (#39242057)

    Warships seal the compartments all the way to the top. Even the cable penetrations are watertight.

    It's expensive, so I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that's the reason they don't do it.

  • by LateArthurDent (1403947) on Sunday March 04, 2012 @06:47PM (#39242401)

    Occam's razor (or actually 'William of Ockham's razor') states that when faced with two solutions for the same problem, the simpler of the two solutions is more likely to be the correct one.

    No, no, no, no. That's a huge pet peeve of mine, and it's what I was trying to correct. Occam's razor says NOTHING about correctness.

    All it says is that if you've got two hypotheses that make the exact same predictions, there's no reason to use the one that involves more variables to arrive at your predictions. You take the simpler one, since it will give you the same answers anyway. The example I like to give, and have posted before on slashdot, is this:

    You and I are given a black box that takes an integer input and returns an integer output. We are tasked with coming up with a hypothesis for the algorithm with the box. We give it the input 3 and it returns 5. We give it the input 7 and it returns 9. We give it 21 and it returns 23. You come up with the hypothesis, "the black box adds 2 to the input." I come up with the hypothesis, "the black box first adds 7 to the input, and then it subtracts 5." Both our theories of what the black box is doing internally give the same prediction for any input, and neither is getting invalidated by the input. In fact, if one of them gets invalidated by an output, so does the other. However, my hypothesis is unnecessarily more complex by adding an additional operation to arrive at the same prediction. That additional complexity also adds more questions. Does it really add 7 and subtract 5? Why not add 9 and then subtract 7? We could spend tons of time trying to figure out exactly what numbers it adds and subtracts when really, all we need to make the proper predictions is your simpler hypothesis.

    Which one is actually correct? Who knows? And it doesn't matter if all our theory is meant to do is explain the output. Now let's say we introduce more tests. We consider how long the box takes to come up with the output, we have a comparison black box that we are assured has the same hardware, and we code the software for that second black box ourselves. We make it just add two to the input, and it gives us the output twice as fast. Now we have reason to believe that more than one operation is going on. We have something to differentiate the theories, and Occam's Razor no longer applies: different predictions are at work and your hypothesis predicts a faster computation time than my hypothesis.

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