What Sank The Titanic? The Moon, Say Two Scientists

The Titanic was sunk by the moon, say two scientists, but others are not so convinced. Their claim is that a truly cosmic conspiracy was afoot on the night of January 4, 1912, which sent many icebergs hurtling towards an area, lying bang in the path of the Titanic. Although the giant ship’s crew were ultimately to blame for not responding to warnings about icebergs in the area, the duo say that this might explain why there were so many icebergs in the area to begin with.

An Astonishing night

The night of Jan 4, 1912 was an astonishing night indeed. The moon was very bright as it was a full moon night. On this night, it was extremely close to the Earth, closer than it had been in 1400 years. This is what is called a ‘supermoon’ event, when the perigee (coming closest to the Earth) and full moon coincide. On top of that, by some coincidence, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth were aligned in nearly a straight line, causing the gravitational forces of the moon and the Sun to be added and generate very high tides. If that were not enough, the Earth was also close to the Sun, with the perihelion of the Earth (position where the Earth is closest to the Sun) happening the day before. The researchers, David Olsen and Russell Doescher, both of Texas State University, argue that this astonishing series of coincidences conspired against the doomed vessel.

The supposed path of the iceberg

The pair argues that icebergs drifting southwards from the Arctic region were refloated by the increased tides. Generally, icebergs float south and then get stuck in the shallow waters near the Labrador Peninsula or Newfoundland (refer map above). This prevents them from drifting south any further. If the iceberg was set afloat once more by the high tides, then they could have indeed caught the Labrador current  and, after drifting south-east a bit, intercepted the Titanic.

Voices of skepticism

Many are not quite convinced, however! The critical question of how high the tides were has been left unanswered. Furthermore, as John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington points out, to compress the normal drift time of three-and-a-half months to just a few hours or even a day or two, is to overestimate the power of the tides. In other words, the icebergs would’ve taken three-and-half months to drift that far to the south. How high must the tides be to reduce that time to just a few hours?

Also many people question the alignment of the Sun, Moon and Earth. Even slight misalignment will not work, as the force needs to be as strong as we can have.

Why the Titanic sank may not be as clear cut at these scientists are trying to make it sound. Their work appears in the April edition of the Sky and Telescope magazine and it might be an interesting read.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.