You can’t sink a good story.
The past few months have produced countless articles, columns, photo galleries, videos, and sundry media clips about the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic striking an iceberg and foundering in the frigid North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.
The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach reported that the president of the Titanic Historical Society found himself “besieged with interview requests” as he tried to survive the centennial. Wrote Achenbach:
This has become a media event as huge and flamboyant as the great ship that lies in ragged ruin at the bottom of the Atlantic.
The Titanic has never been bigger. The story has defied the rules of history, brightening rather than fading with time.
Reminding readers of historian Steven Biel’s quote—“the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic”—Daniel Mendelsohn proffered an explanation in The New Yorker:
The inexhaustible interest suggests that the Titanic’s story taps a vein much deeper than the morbid fascination that has attached to other disasters. The explosion of the Hindenberg, for instance, and even the torpedoing, just three years after the Titanic sank, of the Lusitania, another great liner whose passenger list boasted the rich and the famous, were calamities that shocked the world but have failed to generate an obsessive preoccupation unlike other disasters, the Titanic seems to be about something. But what?
Front-and-center in the anniversary coverage was, as Mendelsohn described it, the “parable about the scope, and limits, of technology.” Scientific American produced a terrific special report, “The Titanic: 100 Years Later,” which focused on that angle with headlines such as, “Could the Titanic Disaster Happen Again?” “The Science behind the Iceberg that sank the Titanic,” “Is It Possible to Build an ‘Unsinkable’ Ship?” and “Titanic: Resonance and Reality.” Interesting pieces from Discovery News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revisited questions about why so many perished despite the fact that the ship had the most advanced wireless radio system of its day. (At The Atlantic, Megan Garber (formerly of CJR fame) posted a short transcript of transmissions to and from the Titanic following its collision with the iceberg.)
The New York Times’s weekly Science Times section explored alternatives to the technological-hubris narrative. In a fascinating article, William Broad outlined two new theories—about king tides and atmospheric mirages—which “argue that rare states of nature played major roles in the catastrophe.” In a similar vein, posts at the National Geographic News and the Los Angeles Times’s environment blog quoted Frank Lowenstein, head of climate-adaptation strategy for the Nature Conservancy discussing the possibility that, in a warming world, a ship travelling on the same route as the Titanic might encounter more icebergs today.
The bigger, or at least more widely covered, scientific controversy to emerge from the anniversary coverage surrounded a federal official’s assertion that there may be human remains at the 2.5-mile-deep site of the shipwreck. His claim is based on a 2004 photograph of the debris field released for the first time this week, which shows coat and boots embedded in the mud in the arrangement of someone wearing them.
“These are not shoes that fell out neatly from somebody’s bag right next to each other,” James Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The New York Times quoted a variety of experts, including filmmaker James Cameron, who’s visited the wreck 33 times, disputing the claim, however. Its article also offered a detailed description of the conditions—particularly the amount of oxygen dissolved in the surrounding water—that govern decomposition of organic materials in the deep sea.
Referring to the wreck site as “hallowed ground,” Sen. John Kerry introduced the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act last week, drawing fairly wide coverage. The bill would strengthen legislation passed in 1986 and seeks to penalize disruptive exploration and illegal salvaging. Because the Titanic’s remains lie in international waters, however, many see new UNESCO cultural heritage protections, which are also getting some media attention, as a better safeguard.