The Dark Side of the Moon

Ian Barnett explores research into the sinking of RMS Titanic

As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic passes, one cannot help but reflect on the enormity of the disaster and the iceberg ultimately responsible for it. However, research reveals that although an iceberg sank the liner the Moon was actually culpable.

When RMS Titanic was built, the most senior captain in White Star Line’s employ, Edward Smith, was chosen to take the helm. He was experienced, and would certainly have had the sagacity not to tempt fate and place the legendary unsinkable ship in danger. However, it appears he did. Why Captain Smith tried to navigate the ship through a field of icebergs at such speed has remained a mystery, but the answer may now have been uncovered: it is possible that he didn’t expect to have any problems with large icebergs, since he was travelling so far south.

The iceberg would most likely have originated from a glacier in Greenland, before first being carried north by currents, then south down the coast of Newfoundland. Normally, an iceberg of such size would have become grounded in shallow coastal waters and would only have resumed its journey after it had melted considerably. However, in 1912, more icebergs were making it further south before melting and so the usual shipping lanes were moved further south, to avoid their paths.

To explain why the iceberg had drifted so far south, we must travel even further back in time, to January 4th 1912. On that day, the Moon passed closer to the Earth than it had done for 1,400 years. The previous day, the Earth reached its shortest annual distance from the Sun. According to a new study, this combination of events created especially high tides, enabling the iceberg to pass over the shallows near the Canadian coast, enter the shipping lanes and sink the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.

It is often lamented that if the liner had been equipped with more lifeboats, more passengers would have survived. Whilst it is true that the Titanic’s 20 lifeboats were woefully short of capacity compared with the number of passengers and crew it was carrying, there was still space for 500 more survivors in the lifeboats. It seems that the alarming rate at which the ship sunk, and the arctic waters in which it was sailing, were in fact the main causes for the huge number of lives lost. However, this does not explain why the under-capacity lifeboats did not attempt to pick up more survivors.

This disaster, therefore, cannot be wholly attributed to human error, although it does seem that more could have been done to avoid such a colossal loss of life. Nobody will ever be able to say with certainty whether the blame, and ultimate responsibility for the loss of 1517 lives, falls on the Moon, the Captain, the look-out or the iceberg itself.

 

Ian Barnett

Image by F.G.O. Stuart

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