The Titanic’s Demise

Twenty years ago, a team of scientists led by Robert Ballard discovered the remains of the Titanic some 12,400 feet under the surface of the North Atlantic. It was a big deal. When the search team returned to Woods Hole, it held a brief service to honor those who died when the Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Now scientists have discovered large sections of the hull that suggest the ship may have split into three parts rather than two, and may have sunk much more quickly than was thought. This, Mr. Ballard said, is not a big deal. “It hit an iceberg and it sank,” he said. “Get over it.”

Mr. Ballard’s comments may be a proprietary growl or a symptom of Titanic fatigue. The discovery of these new remnants are, of course, not as stunning as the original discovery of the wreck. But there is really no getting over the Titanic, at least not where the human imagination is concerned. It is in some ways the supreme tale of the niceties and inequities of a powerful civilization running head-on into the void from which civilization is meant to protect us. It is almost impossible to think of the Titanic without wondering what you would have done or felt if you had been onboard that night.

According to this new evidence, we have to wonder in a different way. The lower part of the hull seems to have split away before the bow and stern separated. To know that the stern section of the ship, where survivors were clustered, may have sunk in as little as 5 minutes, not the 20 minutes of previous estimates, changes the calculus of that event altogether. It is hard to measure terror by the clock, but who would prefer to suffer 20 minutes of terror instead of 5?

An enormous technical literature has grown up around the Titanic. Nowadays, scientists can walk us through the wreckage scattered across the ocean floor as easily as a White Star Line representative might have walked us through the ship before it left Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage. But despite all the technical knowledge we have gained about the sinking of the Titanic, we are still looking for a moral knowledge about that night. That is what makes this new discovery a big deal after all.