Why did the Titanic sink?

Now, I’m aware this post could quite easily be four words long. I will however, give you the longer version of what is the most credible theory behind the sinking of the Titanic. I have even furnished you with a wonderful picture created by my own artistically talentless hand.

Without further ado, let’s get into the analysis. There were lookouts on the Titanic, and on most days they would be able to see a dangerously large iceberg from either its silhouette against the stars or waves breaking against its base. On that fateful night however, there were two problems. Firstly, the sea was as calm as could be. It was described as being like a millpond that night, which meant no waves breaking against any iceberg. But the second, more important problem was refracting light creating a thermal inversion illusion. Allow me to explain….

I’m no physicist, but as I understand it the process goes a little something like this: Whenever a beam of light passes through different levels of density in air (or anything transparent) it bends. If you mix sugar into water and dont stir it in, but instead leave a denser sugary water near the bottom of the glass – try shining a laser pen through it at an angle. The laser’s path should bend as it hits denser water.

This density change acting upon something travelling at speed and causing it to change direction can cause problems. I remember one criminal case in the U.S where a man was shot through the windscreen of his car by a woman stood on the driveway in front of his car, but the woman in an upstairs bedroom was wrongly convicted of the crime. The reason being that the bullet struck the man at a downward trajectory so it was assumed it could only have been fired from the upstairs window. If you fire from the driveway the natural thought is to think the angle of the windscreen would deflect the bullet’s flight path on an upward trajectory, so ruling out the driveway suspect, right? Wrong. As the bullet passes through the windscreen, there is more resistance on the top half of the projectile because the angle of the glass means the solid resistance comes from above the bullet as it passes through, defelcting it downwards. I’ll draw you more abysmal science pictures on another day to demonstrate, but for now I shall get back on topic.

So anyway, back to our fated ship. The Titanic was just passing from slightly warmer water into a stream of freezing cold water coming from the north (and carrying icebergs with it) called the Labrador current. The problem with this was not only that the Titanic sailed into an area carrying many icebergs, but that now the light passing between the eyes of the lookout and the horizon was passing through freezing cold air (which is denser) above the cold current. This caused the light to bend further around the curve of the earth instead of bouncing back from the normal horizon point, creating an optical illusion which meant the lookout was staring at a false horizon much further away.

This meant that when the fateful iceberg came toward the Titanic, it emerged from the gloom below a false horizon, rather than silhouetting the stars above a normal horizon. This made it almost impossible to spot.

As an interesting footnote, the Titanic was built with several compartments below the waterline so that it could take a few large holes in its side and not sink. One or two compartments would flood, but it would stay afloat. Tragically, when the lookouts finally saw the iceberg far too late, the ship took evasive action, dooming everyone on board. If they had hit it head on, one compartment would have been flooded, but they turned and struck a glancing blow, dragging the iceberg along the hull. This created a long gouge which tore open four compartments. This was one too any for the Titanic to withstand.

Next week, I shall be talking about more cheerful things such as the concept of time, and time travel.


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