The Science of a Tragedy

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by Anne Levin

One day in December, Paul Hoffman, the president and CEO of Liberty Science Center, was taking a stroll through Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, a show that has been breaking attendance records since opening this past fall at the Jersey City museum. A little girl, maybe six or seven years old, approached him.

“Her parents were busy reading some of the information on the walls. She turned to me, suddenly, and said, ‘How many icebergs are there? How big do you have to be to be an iceberg?’ I happened to have my I-Pad with me, so we looked up her questions online,” Hoffman said. “Then, she asked me how ships are designed today and how they stay away from icebergs. She had lots of great questions.”

That kind of intellectual engagement is the goal of Titanic. “This kind of exhibit is an example of the whole purpose of what we are doing,” Hoffman said. “It fires the imagination, and that leads people—children and adults—down all sorts of paths. It opens up people’s eyes and allows them to realize that science isn’t necessarily so formidable, that it undermines things in our lives.”

Science plays a major role in Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition, which runs through the end of May. The show is the latest version of one that has appeared in various forms throughout the world over the past 15 years. In Chicago, Paris, London, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, some 22 million people have learned about the disaster and examined artifacts brought up from the site of the notorious wreck.

The White Star liner, the most expensive and luxurious of its time, sank on its maiden voyage after being sliced
open by an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 people perished in the disaster. Split in two and lying more than 12,000 feet below the surface, the wreck was discovered on an exhibition led by Robert Ballard in 1985.

Since the ship sank, there have been books, films, exhibits, and songs about the ship.”It fascinates people,” said Hoffman. “I think it’s the contrast between this being a marvel of technology and then the deep human tragedy that it was. And it was the most luxurious accommodation of the day, more than any hotel. They had 1,500 bottles of wine, just for the first class passengers. There were 8,000 cigars on board for first class, and that’s for just a seven-day voyage.”

The Titanic exhibit is a chronological journey that starts with the ship’s construction and ends with the recovery of artifacts from the ocean floor. It is full of facts that even the most obsessive enthusiast might find illuminating. For instance: Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer, was not supposed to go on the maiden voyage. But when Lord James Pirrie, the managing director of WhitStar Line, had to cancel due to illness, Andrews went in his place. He was among those lost in the sinking.

The average cost of a first class ticket was $2,500—about $57,200 in today’s dollars. For the finest suites, passengers paid $4,500—the equivalent of $103,000 today. Third class passengers paid $35—about $620 today.

One of them was David John Barton of Wicken, Cambridge, England. His name was on a typical “boarding pass” handed to visitors as they enter the exhibit. Each pass bears the name of an actual passenger. Upon leaving the exhibit, visitors learn their passenger’s fate.

Headed for Rochester, New York to take a job with Kodak, David Barton was traveling alone in third class. According to a “passenger fact” on the boarding pass: “David had planned to sail on another vessel with two of his friends, but failed a routine medical inspection for third-class passengers. His friends sailed without him. After failing once more, David was finally deemed healthy and cleared to travel on Titanic.” Sadly, but not surprisingly, he didn’t make it.

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Blown up photographs and diagrams of the ship, and of its designers at work, are at the entrance to the exhibit. Another shows a group of workers standing next to the ship’s massive propellers, which tower over them.

There are numerous items in glass cases that were retrieved from the ocean floor near the wreck—rivets, the bell from the ship’s crow’s nest, a leather bag, chamber pots used for seasickness, a medical syringe, a disintegrating bar of soap, a piece of the wooden garland from the first class grand staircase, dishes, a broken crystal vase, bathroom floor tiles, coins, a top hat, and cuff links. There is a silver and diamond bracelet, a calling card that says “Miss Stella Cobo, Teacher of Piano,” electric fan blades, chunks of coal, a man’s shoe, a watch chain, and a perfume bottle with its contents still inside.

A major attraction, especially for curious children, is a large, re-created iceberg that they can touch. Visitors view a lavish first-class stateroom, and a considerably less elaborate third-class cabin with bunk beds and exposed pipes.

The exhibit explores the mistakes that were made, from the lack of sufficient lifeboats to the belief that the ship was “unsinkable.”

“They cut corners,” Hoffman said. “They were trying to set a speed record. They took the shortest distance, which took them through dangerously icy waters. And they were going at very high speeds. Even though this was the most technologically sophisticated thing ever done, they still cut corners. They used iron on some of the rivets instead of steel, and those were the ones that popped when they hit the iceberg.”

The organization RMS Titanic Inc. is the only company allowed by law to recover objects from the wreck. The company was granted the rights in 1994 by a federal court and has conducted seven research and recovery expeditions, bringing back more than 5,500 artifacts. And there is more where those came from.

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“Initially there was a public and private debate about whether the artifacts should be removed,” said Hoffman. “But once it became clear that everything was going to disintegrate, most of the descendants of the passengers thought we should bring the artifacts up.”

In the process, the exhibit reveals, scientists have discovered that iron-eating bacteria is slowly but steadily devouring what remains of the ship. The goal of RMS Titanic is to stop the deterioration, but the bacteria is winning.

Many of the children who tour the exhibit want to know how people died in the wreck. “Kids, like adults, are fascinated by life and death,” Hoffman said. “So it’s natural that they’re interested. What they find out is that most of the people died from hypothermia, not drowning.”

On his undercover strolls through the exhibit, Hoffman has observed visitors responding to different aspects. “People seize on different things according to their interests and their ages,” he said. “So what we try to do is appeal to those different aspects. They are coming in force to see this. It’s about science and technology, but it’s a deeply human story.”

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit runs through May 30 at Liberty Science Center, 222 Jersey City Boulevard, Jersey City. Visit www.lsc.org for more information.

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