Two new studies point to nature and an unusually big crop of icebergs.
What doomed the Titanic is well known, at least in outline. On a moonless night in the North Atlantic, the liner hit an iceberg and disaster ensued, with 1,500 lives lost.
Hundreds of books, studies and official inquires have addressed the deeper question of how a ship that was so costly and so well built -- a ship declared to be unsinkable -- could have ended so terribly. The theories vary widely, placing the blame on everything from inept sailors to flawed rivets. Now, a century after the liner went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912, two new studies argue that rare states of nature played major roles.
The first says Earth's nearness to the moon and the sun -- a proximity not matched in more than 1,000 years -- resulted in record tides that help explain why the Titanic encountered so much ice, including the fatal iceberg.
And a second, put forward by a Titanic historian from Britain, contends that the icy waters created ideal conditions for an unusual type of mirage that hid icebergs from lookouts and confused a nearby ship as to the liner's identity.
Author Tim Maltin said his explanation helps remove the stain of blunder from what he regards as a tragedy.
"There were no heroes, no villains," Maltin said. "Instead, there were a lot of human beings trying to do their best in the situation as they saw it." The title of his new book, "Titanic: A Very Deceiving Night," being published this week as an e-book, alludes to how mirages could have wrought havoc with human observations.
Scholars, as well as scientists, are debating the new theories. Some question whether natural factors can outweigh the ineptitude. Others find the mirage explanation plausible -- in limited scenarios. Overall, though, many experts applaud the fresh perspectives.
The Titanic was the largest, most luxurious ship of its time. It carried 10 millionaires.
From the start, news reports and inquiries said that the ice in the North Atlantic was unusually bad that year. The New York Times, in an article shortly after the sinking, quoted U.S. officials as saying that the winter had produced "an enormously large crop of icebergs."
Recently, a team of researchers from Texas State University-San Marcos and Sky & Telescope magazine found an apparent explanation in the heavens. They published their findings in the magazine's April issue.
The team discovered that Earth had come unusually close to the sun and moon that winter, enhancing their gravitational pulls on the ocean and producing record tides. The rare orbits took place between December 1911 and February 1912 -- about two months before the disaster.
The researchers suggest that the high tides refloated masses of icebergs traditionally stuck near Labrador and Newfoundland, sending them adrift into the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
"We don't claim that our idea is conclusive," Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State, said. But, he added, the team continues to gather new supporting evidence.
Olson said that after the study's publication, "we found there had been remarkable tidal events around the globe -- in England and New Zealand."
Unusual kind of mirage
The icy waters that night created ideal conditions for an unusual kind of mirage, according to Maltin, who has written three books on the Titanic.
Most people know mirages as natural phenomena caused when hot air near the Earth's surface bends light rays upward. But another kind of mirage occurs when cold air bends light rays downward. In that case, observers can see objects and settings far over the horizon. The images often undergo quick distortions.
In an interview, Maltin said he first learned of the possibility of cold mirages when reading a 1992 British inquiry on the Titanic's sinking. It suggested that the icy waters could have cooled the adjacent air and warped images that confused the Californian, a nearby ship that could have rushed to the Titanic's aid but instead did nothing.
Fascinated, Maltin dug into navigational records and found that both the Californian and the Titanic had moved into the icy Labrador Current that night and had encountered conditions ideal for cold mirages. He then hunted through reams of official and unofficial testimony to see what people saw -- or what they thought they saw.
A drama of misperceptions ensues. Maltin's book shows how mirages could have created false horizons that hid the iceberg from the Titanic's lookouts.
By this theory, the intersection of dark sea and starry sky would have looked blurry, reducing the contrast with the looming iceberg. Maltin cites three Titanic lookouts who, despite the night's remarkable clarity, testified to seeing an unusual haze on the horizon.
Maltin suggests that the speeding Titanic would have slowed down if its crew and officers had understood how the cold night was bending light in confusing ways.
As for the failed rescue, Maltin cites testimony that he sees as revealing the role of nature's trickery. The Californian knew the luxury liner was nearby but wrote off sightings of its lights and distress rockets. Maltin calculates that the two ships were about 10 miles apart. But cold mirages, he says, let the crews see the vessels as much closer -- on the order of 5 miles.
This sense of closeness helped create a disastrous series of false impressions, he argues.
The Californian's captain, Stanley Lord, said the nearby ship seemed to be a medium-size steamer rather than a giant passenger liner. "I am positive," he testified, "it was not the Titanic."