From Titanic to Avatar and back again

100 years ago today, the RMS Titanic struck an ice berg and, in the early hours of 15 April 1912, lost its battle with the Archimedes Principle and Gravity; and sank nearly 4km to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Over the last few weeks the television channels have been awash with programmes about the history and the legacy of the disaster; among the most interesting (IMHO) have been the 3 half-hour programmes presented by former steelworker and professional dancer and Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman. Amongst many other things, Goodman pointed out that, until very recently, massive ships like the Titanic had only made commercial sense because of the large numbers of people seeking to emigrate from the UK and Ireland to the USA. Amazingly, the new Queen Mary 2 is much larger than the Titanic but it at least does have enough life boats to accommodate all of its passengers if the worst thing should happen… It always seems that the more you find out about the Titanic disaster the worse it gets – and this week has been no different because, as Paul Handover has pointed out over on Learning from Dogs, it would seem that Lady Louise Patten (wife of Sir Christopher – former Conservative Cabinet Minister and the very last British Governor of Hong Kong) has spent most of her life harbouring a secret: The Titanic struck the iceberg as a result of confusion caused by the then recent change from steering with a tiller to steering with a wheel. This was first reported in the media about 18 months ago but, it may be that, people seem too comfortable with the received myth that the ship was doomed by sailing too fast in dangerous waters. If Lady Patten is telling the truth (and there would appear to be no reason to think she is not) it makes the whole thing even more tragic… In the UK, both the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel screened several programmes to mark the centenary of the tragedy and, on the latter, another programme that caught and retained my attention for 2 hours was Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron. This programme included a review of Cameron’s many expeditions down to the wreck on the sea bed over the last 20 years (using a combination of manned submersibles and unmanned robots) all leading up to a re-visualisation (i.e. computer-generated animation) of the sinking, which takes account of all that has been learned about what happened since Cameron’s epic DiCaprio and Winslet film was produced in the mid 1990s. This was all very interesting – as was the forensic analysis of the wreck site; treating it like the scene of a crime – analysing the layout of all the pieces of the wreck strewn over a wide area (i.e. with the stern and bow sections about half a mile apart) to work out how the two main pieces must have detached, sunk separately and fragmented on the way down – in order for all the pieces to end up where they did… Nevertheless, although in retrospect it is no surprise given the name of the programme, it was the final words of James Cameron that struck me most forcibly. Another reason why I should not have been surprised was Cameron’s 3D masterpiece – Avatar – which was probably praised and ridiculed in equal measure for being a thinly-disguised appeal for people to be concerned about the way in which humanity is currently degrading the environment that sustains us. With any additional comments of mine included in square brackets, this is what James Cameron said:

The human population of the Earth today is analogous to the passengers on the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Due to a combination of arrogance and hubris it was considered ‘too big to fail’; and where have we heard that before?… Firstly, the big machine of the Titanic is like the huge system that is modern civilisation today. The Titanic had huge momentum and could not quickly turn away from disaster [even if the wheel was turned the right way]. Secondly, it carried First, Second and Third Class passengers, which are analogous to citizens of Developed, Emerging, and Less Developed economies; wherein the poorest will be the worst affected by climate change [only 25% of Third Class passengers survived – compared with 60% of First Class]. Thirdly, we can now see the iceberg [i.e. anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD)] very clearly but, even so, we cannot turn away from it because of the political momentum of our fossil fuel based systems. There are too many people making money out of the system the way the system works right now. Those people are in control and until they relinquish control and/or turn the wheel [the right way] we are not going to avoid hitting the iceberg… When we hit it, the rich will still maintain their access to land, food and water; whereas the poorest will lose it… This story [of the Titanic] will always fascinate people because it is such a perfect analogy for our current predicament.

————————- NEWS UPDATE: ‘Global warming close to becoming irreversible’, Scientific American (26 March 2012); and ‘Attacks on climate science… shouldn’t be taken seriously’, The Guardian (12 April 2012).


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Civilisation, Climate Science, Environment, Fossil Fuels, Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to From Titanic to Avatar and back again

  1. Lionel A says:

    Ah! Yes the old ‘port the helm’ (or starboard the helm) confusion. The helm being the tiller and which had remained atop a rudder as steering wheels took over from the whipstaff. The whipstaff operation was conceptually simpler as moving the whipstaff to starboard ported the helm which in turn moved the rudder and point of steering to starboard. The action of putting the helm to port, moved the rudder to starboard which would then turn the vessel to starboard. The issue of lifeboats is not necessarily solved by having enough for all souls on board as the various ways in which a ship begins to sink can make most either inoperable or dangerous to use. This in particular if maintenance of the falls of the davits and the training of the crew are deficient. The real story of why and how the Titanic sank is still shrouded in the fog of competing accounts. Some consider a switch of ships between Olympic and Titanic following the collision with HMS Hawk and then a plot to limit losses from a basically beyond economic repair, for the long haul, vessel by sending a patched up Olympic to sea as Titanic. Others are not convinced by the arguments of Robin Gardiner in his book ‘Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank’ but I am not yet that dismissive and still trying to sort through the minefield that is Harland & Wolf publicity photographs of these vessels. What is clear to me is that cast iron forgings of the type used for the propulsion bearing frames of the ship would have been very vulnerable to damage by ramming from an armoured cruiser and difficult to repair. Cast iron is a very difficult material to repair safely. Underwater studies by ROV have produced new evidence for the fact that Titanic could not possibly have reared up as seen in most illustrations but would have settled quickly as bottom plates fell away when the structure, compromised by faulty expansion joint design and too thin steel (Anfdrews wanted thicker steel hull plates but was overruled by Ismay on grounds of increased fuel consumption) began to fail. See ‘Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler’ by Brad Matsen. The analogy with the plight of Earth is an apt one and I can recommend ‘The Future of Life’ by E O Wilson who’s earlier ‘The Diversity of Life’ is also worth a look, ‘Driven to Extinction: The Impact of Climate Change on Biodiversity’ by Richard Pearson


    • Lionel A says:

      I made two small errors in the above. HMS Hawk was a Protected Cruiser and not an Armoured Cruiser, the difference is fundamental and to do with how the sensitive areas of a cruiser are protected. Mostly deck armour and coal in the former and thick side armour in the latter. This had little bearing on the result of the collision with RMS Olympic. The stern frames and propeller shaft bracket assemblies of RMS Olympic (also RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic) were of cast steel and not cast iron as previously stated. Whatever, the permanent repair of cast material is considerably more difficult than that of components manufactured from forged steel or fabricated from rolled steel.


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