Titanic mystery solved: The optical phenomenon that caused crew to see iceberg too late

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Tim Maltin is interviewed on Science Digest, June 2022.

“Titanic famously sank in on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg, during her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK, to New York City. An official inquiry into the incident was launched by both the British Board of Trade and the US Senate – neither found negligence from the owner, White Star Liner. Tim Maltin is a British author, historian and TV presenter who spent more than six years trawling through the first-hand account of those who survived the disaster. He found that many passengers and officers described it as “the clearest night in history,” which contradicted the lookouts who recorded a “haze” around the horizon. This led him to the discovery that “there was a haze – and it was the clearest night in history”. According to the expert, it’s all to do with an optical phenomenon known as a mirage, which causes light rays to bend through refraction. This can make objects appear much further away than they really are. Mr Maltin calculates that the lookouts had less than a minute to react from when they saw the iceberg to taking evasive measures. In fact, Titanic actually missed a direct collision with the iceberg thanks to this – but more than 200 feet of damage was done to the ship’s side. The vessel was dubbed “unsinkable” because its designers made sure it could float with up to four of its 16 water-tight compartments flooded. But, Mr Maltin reveals, the “Achilles heel” of her design was that she couldn’t float with five flooded – and so slowly sank after more than two hours. The British passenger liner, under the control of Captain Edward Smith, had roughly 2,400 passengers on board when it struck the iceberg shortly before midnight. The devastating event saw more than 1,500 people lose their lives in one of modern history’s deadliest commercial marine disasters. The wreck of the Titanic — which was discovered on September 1, 1985 —is located at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, some 13,000 feet (4,000 metres) underwater. It remains in two main pieces, the bow and the stern – but experts warn that it is quickly disintegrating and could soon be lost forever. Video shot by Abby Chitty Edited by Matthew Capon Produced by Callum Hoare.”

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