The role of physics in the sinking of the Titanic

2 April 2012 | Source: Physics World

A century on from the sinking of the Titanic, science writer Richard Corfield takes a look at the cascade of events that led to the demise of the ‘unsinkable’ ship, taking into account the maths and physics that played a significant part.

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At 23:40 on Sunday 14 April 1912 the Titanic, bound from Southampton to New York, struck an iceberg just off the coast of Newfoundland and became fully submerged within three hours, before dropping four kilometres to the bottom of the Atlantic.

There have been many stories recounting why the ship struck the iceberg and why two-thirds of the passengers and crew lost their lives: the lack of lifeboats; the absence of binoculars in the crow’s nest; the shortcomings of the radio operator. However, in this article, Corfield takes a more in-depth look at the structural deficiencies of the ship and how these contributed to its demise.

Corfield highlights the work of two metallurgists, Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, who combined their own analysis with historical records from the shipyard in Belfast where the Titanic was built and found that the rivets that held the ship’s hull together were not uniform in composition or quality and not been inserted in a uniform fashion.

This meant that, in practice, the region of the Titanic’s hull that hit the iceberg was substantially weaker than the main body of the ship – Foecke and McCarty speculate that the poorer-quality materials were used as a cost-cutting exercise.

As well as the actual make-up of the ship, it also appears that the climate thousands of miles away from where the ship actually sunk may have had a hand in events. At times when the weather is warmer than usual in the Caribbean, the Gulf Stream intersects with the glacier-carrying Labrador Current in the North Atlantic in such a way that icebergs are aligned to form a barrier of ice.

In 1912 the Caribbean experienced an unusually hot summer and so the Gulf Stream was particularly intense; the Titanic hit the iceberg right at the intersection of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current.

“No one thing sent the Titanic to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Rather, the ship was ensnared by a perfect storm of circumstances that conspired her to doom,” writes Corfield.

Also in this issue:

  • Weird worlds – what plants on extrasolar planets may look like
  • Quantum miracle – the enduring popularity of Schrödinger’s cat in art and literature
  • Ward of the rings – why learning how to supress coffee stains could be useful for biosciences


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