Um… Happy Anniversary, Titanic?

Just before midnight on April 14th, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. Yes, this really happened. No, it wasn’t just James Cameron making shit up. I thought I should state that for the record, because it seems some folks these days aren’t aware of that fact. I know you already know this, my darlings, but in case you encounter someone who doesn’t realize the Titanic actually existed, and in fact still does, only at the bottom of the sea, you can point them this way for some loving correction and some science. Also, a book recommendation: A Night to Remember is a great book on the disaster. I read it when I was still in single digits and never forgot it. The author did a magnificent job bringing the whole sad story to life.

So that’s one purpose of this post: to ensure that, on the anniversary of its sinking (it broke up and went under just after two on the morning of the 15th), in case there are any lingering doubts, the fact is stated: Yes, Virginia, there was a Titanic. 1,517 people died aboard it. And it’s important to remember what happened and why, because those folks didn’t have to die. We learn from disasters like this, even ones that are a century old.

But it’s not just about hubris and the necessity of safety regulations that mandate things like enough lifeboats for all souls onboard, although those things are critically important. The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is also a prime excuse opportunity to explore some truly fascinating science, which is the second reason for this post.

You already know about my post, “The Real Heart of the Ocean,” which explores the geology of the necklace that inspired that monstrosity lovely piece worn by Kate Winslet in the movie. Of course you do. And you’ve read it, right? Right?

But you may not have read David Bressan’s post on the iceberg that took down an ocean liner. That’s right, my darlings: two posts on geology related to the Titanic! And you knew we weren’t going to neglect the iceberg. Of course not.

Iceberg photographed on April 15th, 1912. It's an iceberg, possibly the iceberg. For more info, see David's post, which I filched this from.

And there’s more science where that comes from: a whole page on Scientific American dedicated to the science of the Titanic, complete with contemporary articles from the archives.

It doesn’t feel right saying “Happy anniversary!” But taking this moment to remember those who lost their lives and those who survived does. And the science of the Titanic is fascinating. There’s a lot more to the story than the movie could portray. If just one person who saw the 3D release lands here looking for more information and leaves with a whole new appreciation for science (and safety regulations), I’ll be well pleased.

The Big Ba-Boom

It’s that time o’ year again.  31 years ago, Mt. St. Helens blew herself nearly in half and changed America’s consciousness of volcanoes for generations.  Up till then, I think a good majority of us believed that ginormous esplodey eruptions were things that happened to other countries’ mainlands.  Yeah, we’d had eruptions in Alaska and Hawaii, but, y’know, they were Alaska and Hawaii.  Always the odd states out.  (Apologies to my Alaskan and Hawaiian readers, but face facts: your states are awesomely exotic to us grubby lower 48thers).

She seared herself into my consciousness 31 years ago, at a very tender young age, and has stayed with me ever since.  One of the most exciting things about moving up here was getting to see her face-to-crater. 

I won’t go on about it – did a bit of that in my 30th anniversary post and its addendum.  Someday soon, I hope, I’ll get back out there with a proper camera and a better understanding of the landscapes created and do her up properly.  She’s just a day-trip away, now.  In the meantime, I wanted to share this post full of incredible photos that popped up via someone in my Twitter feed, I wish I remembered who.  Thanks, whoever it was!  Some of the particulars in the captions are spectacularly wrong, but the photos are still gorgeous.

Some of them I’d never seen before, like this eruption at sunset:

USGS Photo #11 taken on July 22, 1980, by Rick Hoblitt

And a perfect demonstration of why I’ll never become a vulcanologist:

Photo #21 Date 17 April 1980 by taken from USGS helicopter

If you look above the 17, just over a third of the way to the top, you’ll see a very tiny human being climbing up the slopes of a violently active volcano.  That is David Johnston, USGS vulcanologist, whose last words I’ll never forget: “Vancouver!  Vancouver!  This is it!”  They bring tears to my eyes even now.  He embodied everything it means to be a geologist studying volcanoes: excitement, discovery, and devotion to science despite the danger. 

There’s a memorial at Johnston Ridge Observatory dedicated to the victims of the blast.  Take a moment to remember them today: the visitors, the residents, the reporters, the workers, and the scientists who became a part of the mountain’s history forever.

Memorial – David Johnston’s name is one row down to the left of the rose

Never Forget. Never Again.

I missed a grim anniversary: the bombing of Hiroshima, but 65 years ago today we dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, either. 

Opinions differ as to the severity of the war crime and whether or not it was necessary for America to drop nuclear weapons on two cities filled with civilians.  I used to be in the “horrifying but necessary” camp before The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb moved me into the “horrifying and unnecessary” camp.  Then I found out about about the firebombings that came before it, and all of the other brutalities that get swept under various rugs, and learned just how brutal humans, even my own exalted countrymen, could be.  It doesn’t matter to me that other nations perpetrated horrors.  Tit-for-tat is never an excuse.  Preventing a worse horror is, but only just.

From what I’ve learned, my country could have avoided becoming the first (and, so far, thankfully, the only) country to drop atomic weapons on cities full of civilians.  We didn’t have to set that precedent.  There was this word, “unconditional,” we stuck in front of “surrender,” though, and somehow our leaders at the time didn’t think it worth enemy lives to negotiate something that would have ended the war just as effectively.  Maybe it’s because I’m young and wasn’t there, but I can’t see how allowing Japan to retain some dignity could be such a sticking point that we decided it was better to drop nukes instead.

And maybe something good came of it, because the horror of those images has certainly given others pause.  It has made quite a lot of people, powerful and common alike, pull back from the abyss, recoil in horror, swear these terrible weapons will not be used.  Not today.  Not for this.  (Of course, MAD helped.)

War, of course, is brutal, and brutal decisions are made in the fog of it.  That doesn’t mean we get to excuse what we have done.  Explain it, perhaps, certainly swear, “Never again.”  There will never be a perfect war, a perfectly just war, a perfect application of the minimum necessary force, but that reality doesn’t excuse and cannot be used to condone atrocity.  It should never allow us to blithely apply the maximum force we’re capable of.  It should not allow us to forgive and forget our own sins.

When I think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I feel sadness, horror and outrage.  But I also remember an experience Joseph Campbell related in Transformations of Myth Through Time:

I was in Japan and was taken to Nagasaki, where the second atom bomb was dropped.  I was with a group of Japanese, and I must say I felt mortified, being an American, and responsible – remotely – for this horrific act.  The extent of the devastation was still evident.  They have an enormous image just pointing up, exactly to the place from which the bomb came.  My Japanese friends felt no malice, no sense of my being to blame.  We had been enemies, pairs of opposites, two aspects of the same thing – beautiful.

So forgiveness is possible, on both sides.  But never forget.

Never again.

Nagasaki Memorial

(This post is timed to appear at 11:01am, August 9th, Nagasaki time.)