A Very Deceiving Night: Seeing stars

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Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley also noticed the very bright stars that night and he gives us the best description of the extraordinary weather conditions the night the Titanic sank, in this fascinating and beautiful extract from his 1912 book, The Loss of the Titanic:

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Lawrence Beesley © Mary Evans Picture Library

As the oarsmen pulled slowly away we all turned and took a long look at the mighty vessel towering high above our midget boat, and I know it must have been the most extraordinary sight I shall ever be called upon to witness; I realize now how totally inadequate language is to convey to some other person who was not there any real impression of what we saw.

But the task must be attempted: the whole picture is so intensely dramatic that, while it is not possible to place on paper for eyes to see the actual likeness of the ship as she lay there, some sketch of the scene will be possible. First of all, the climatic conditions were extraordinary. The night was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen: the sky without a single cloud to mar the perfect brilliance of the stars, clustered so thickly together that in places there seemed almost more dazzling points of light set in the black sky than background of sky itself; and each star seemed, in the keen atmosphere, free from any haze, to have increased its brilliance tenfold and to twinkle and glitter with a staccato flash that made the sky seem nothing but a setting made for them in which to display their wonder. They seemed so near, and their light so much more intense than ever before, that fancy suggested they saw this beautiful ship in dire distress below and all their energies had awakened to flash messages across the black dome of the sky to each other, telling and warning of the calamity happening in the world beneath. Later, when the Titanic had gone down and we lay still on the sea waiting for the day to dawn or a ship to come, I remember looking up at the perfect sky and realizing why Shakespeare wrote the beautiful words he puts in the mouth of Lorenzo:  

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims;

Such harmony is in immortal souls;

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

 But it seemed almost as it we could – that night: the stars seemed really to be alive and to talk. The complete absence of haze produced a phenomenon I had never seen before: where the sky met the sea the line was as clear and definite as the edge of a knife, so that the water and the air never merged gradually into each other and blended to a softened rounded horizon, but each element was so exclusively separate that where a star came low down in the sky near the clear-cut edge of the water-line, it still lost none if its brilliance. As the earth revolved and the water edge came up and covered partially the star, as it were, it simply cut the star in two, the upper half continuing to sparkle as long as it was not entirely hidden, and throwing a long beam of light along the sea to us.

In the evidence before the United States Senate Committee the captain of one of the ships near us that night said the stars were so extraordinarily bright near the horizon that he was deceived into thinking that they were ships’ lights: he did not remember seeing such a night before. Those who were afloat will all agree with that statement: we were often deceived into thinking they were lights of a ship.

And next the cold air! Here again was something quite new to us: there was not a breath of wind to blow keenly round us as we stood in the boat, and because of its continued persistence to make us feel cold; it was just a keen, bitter, icy, motionless cold that came from nowhere and yet was there all the time; the stillness of it – if one can imagine “cold” being motionless and still – was what seemed new and strange.

And these – the sky and the air – were overhead; and below was the sea. Here again something uncommon: the surface was like a lake of oil, heaving gently up and down with a quiet motion that rocked our boat dreamily to and fro. We did not need to keep her head to the swell: often I watched her lying broadside-on to the tide, and with a boat loaded as we were, this would have been impossible with anything like a swell. The sea slipped away smoothly under the boat, and I think we never heard it lapping on the sides, so oily in appearance was the water. So when one of the stokers said he had been to sea for twenty-six years and never yet seen such a calm night, we accepted it as true without comment. Just as expressive was the remark of another: “It reminds me of a bloomin’ picnic!” It was quite true; it did: a picnic on a lake, or a quiet inland river like the Cam, or a backwater on the Thames.

And so in these conditions of sky and air and sea we gazed broadside on the Titanic from a short distance.

The black outline of her profile against the sky was bordered all round by stars studded in the sky, and all her funnels and masts were picked out in the same way: her bulk was seen where the stars were blotted out.”

And Beesley’s extraordinary description of the stars that night agrees with many other survivors, including First Class Titanic passenger Mrs F.M. Warren:

“The sea was like glass, so smooth that the stars were clearly reflected.”

Beesley was describing a perfect thermal inversion.  The stillness of the very cold air seemed new and strange to him because in an inversion there is none of the usual mixing of air we normally experience: each layer of air is colder and therefore more dense or heavier than the layer above it and so eddy motion in the atmosphere is reduced to almost nil, but the stratified layers of air do oscillate due to slight turbulence over a long distance, and this is what causes the stars to flash on and off, as the paths of the light beams from the stars are thrown across and then away from the observers eyes, and back again, causing an apparent staccato flashing on and off.

Even without the extraordinary staccato flashing of the stars caused by the stratified air in the inversion, the clear, calm, dark conditions that Beesley describes that night are hard to imagine, if one has not experienced them. But they do occur from time to time, as recorded in the following edited extract from the much more recent log of the research vessel Moira, by marine biologist Richard Chesher, Ph.D., when he was in 8º North 130º East:

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The Moira on a clear, calm, moonless night © Dr. Richard Chester Ph.D.

“It’s so calm I can see each star reflected on the sea, slightly distorted, lifting and falling on the long low glossy ocean swells. Our universe of stars lies half way between the Philippines and Palau in the Western Caroline Islands. There has not been a breath of wind for two days…I sit and gaze at the stars. Try as I might I can’t distinguish where the horizon is. Stars, stars, stars. Not one cloud out here tonight. No moon, just millions upon millions of stars. The way the sea reflects each star is mesmerising, I can even see the little bitty stars reflected on the utterly calm surface.”        

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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