December 8, 2009

SS Titanic - 1912... 2012

The sinking of the ocean liner The Titanic has become folkloric, and as I've written before, iconic, since it resonates with so many facets of human behavior. It's for that reason that I'm fascinated by the story-- a true story, well documented, and illustrative of human foible. What more could one want of a tale?

Like all events that have morphed into tradition, it's all too easy to miss the penetrating insights it offers as we simply gloss over it as the entertainment it has now become. Bearing that in mind, let's have another, measured look at the story and see if there are angles previously overlooked.

The Titanic represented the height of technological prowess in 1912. It had a double steel hull, it had steam turbines for propulsion, and electric generators for light, and even the latest communication device, called wireless telegraphy. It was outfitted lavishly, with a grand ball-room, dining rooms, and comfortable cabins (for the first and second class passengers, at least). To preside over its maiden voyage, the White Star line chose Captain Edward J. Smith, who was considered an accomplished sea captain. Given the caliber of the celebrity passengers aboard SS Titanic on this inaugural crossing-- men such as JJ Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim-- Smith must have been selected to meet their expectations. Yet the tragic sinking of this ship must be placed directly on the shoulders of this one man.

On the star-lit evening of April 14, 1912, the Titanic was slicing thru the north Atlantic waters at close to full speed. Inside, passengers were enjoying live music in the ball-room, and fine foods served on fine tables by attentive staff. Then, the watchman on duty reported to the bridge-- an iceberg had been spotted a few miles distant. The bridge officers reported the information to the captain, and the speed was reduced slightly, but still maintained at over 20 knots. You don't have to be a physicist to grasp that a large, massive steel vessel, moving at around 25 mph, has a great deal of momentum, and does not easily change direction. If it should strike another massive object at that speed, there will be 'unintended consequences.' When you are driving a vehicle on the highway and it starts to snow, you know you have to slow down to maintain control. But Captain Smith simply carried on as if it was 'clear sailing.'

What was he thinking? It's not obvious. He must have known the dangers of steaming at high speed in the North Atlantic during ice-flow season. He would have had some notion of the dire consequences of a collision. Even if he was utterly confident that the ship was 'unsinkable,' as the designers claimed, he would still have known that hitting a fair-sized hunk of ice would create 'inconvenience' at the least, such as having to proceed at much reduced speed or possibly stopping to wait for assistance. Yet Smith seemed oblivious to the risk, and ignored the warning of his look-out. Crazy behavior in retrospect. Crazy decision even at the time. Why did he do so?

The answer to the big 'why' seems to lie somewhere in the human psyche. Smith exhibited the hubris that the Greeks wrote about, a kind of arrogant contempt for displays that other humans could view as weakness. Was he so enamored of the extravagant claims of the technologists of his day, that he was ready to bet the safety of his ship on it? What was Captain Smith thinking, anyway? It makes no sense.

The whole sorry tale fascinates me because it encapsulates in cameo all the elements that one can apply to our modern age and its challenges. To cite some of the parallels, I offer the following broad strokes for the reader's meditation.

Humanity is sailing thru the cosmic seas of space on the good ship Earth on a starry night. Aboard are a handful of ultra-rich, celebrity passengers, traveling first class, and enjoying nothing but the best. In the ballroom, comfortable, middle-class passengers dance to the music and imbibe fine wines. In the lower decks, there are multitudes of poor passengers, poverty-stricken, who can only dream of having the necessities of life. Our 'watchmen' have been warning us for a long time of dangers looming dead ahead but at an unknown distance. On the bridge of spaceship Earth there is an assortment of crazed, self-seeking, madmen, seemingly bent on destruction. None of the higher-ranking officers wants to slacken the pace of life, or to evaluate the warnings coming from the look-outs. Reckless abandon seems to be the hallmark of the day, as politicians bicker and ignore the crises of climate change, global inequalities, pollution, corruption, drug-weapon-and-human trafficking, and so on. Those few who know about the dangers that lie ahead prefer to keep the masses in blissful ignorance of them; and the latter are quite happy to carry on in their willful lack of awareness. The iceberg was not some sinister, devised calamity; it was simply a normally occurring artifact, existing in accordance with the natural laws. Could an analogous, natural, cosmic event collide with the destiny of Earth in the near future?

You, dear reader, can connect the dots, and notice how the situation of the Titanic in the cold, dark Atlantic Ocean in 1912 reflects the larger reality of planet Earth in (dare I say it?)... 2012.

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