Public Release: 

The role of physics in the sinking of the Titanic

IOP Publishing

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.

At 11.40 p.m. 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

Please mention Physics World as the source of these items and, if publishing online, please include a hyperlink to: http://physicsworld.com

Notes for editors:

1. Physics World is the international monthly magazine published by the Institute of Physics. For further information or details of its editorial programme, please contact the editor, Dr Matin Durrani, on tel 44-117-930-1002. The magazine's website physicsworld.com is updated regularly and contains physics news, views and resources. Visit http://physicsworld.com.

2. For copies of Physics World and copies of the articles reviewed here contact Michael Bishop, IOP Press Officer, tel 44-117-930-1032, e-mail michael.bishop@iop.org.

3. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society promoting physics and bringing physicists together for the benefit of all.

It has a worldwide membership of around 40 000 comprising physicists from all sectors, as well as those with an interest in physics. It works to advance physics research, application and education; and engages with policymakers and the public to develop awareness and understanding of physics. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in professional scientific communications. Go to http://www.iop.org

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.