The Titanic: it’s not the watch, it’s the story

, State Library of Queensland, Australia.

Rescued lifeboats from the Titanic, State Library of Queensland, Australia. (Flickr Commons).

“A good story can prolong itself indefinitely.”
[Steven Biel, “Down with the Old Canoe”]

RMS Titanic was 882 1/2 feet long and 92 1/2 feet wide. From keel to boat deck she was 97 feet tall, and her enormous bulk was able to displace 60,000 tons of water. Yet the real weight of the Titanic resides in her story. The sudden silence of the Atlantic ocean on a cold April night in 1912 created a space in which this story would be told. And the story would plough on through time, displacing far more than a weight of water.

“Patently destructible in life, the Titanic has proved indestructible in memory”. [John Maxtone-Graham, maritime historian]

It has been said that there were two defining moments in the history of the Titanic – the instant of her sinking in 1912 and the publication in 1955 of Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember”. In 1926, as a boy of nine-years-old, Walter Lord investigated the deck of the Olympic and tried to imagine what it must have been like to see such a huge thing as her sister-ship vanishing into the Atlantic. That very same year, Erwin Schrödinger was invited to Copenhagen by fellow physicist Niels Bohr, and there a discussion took place that was to change the way in which we perceive the physical world forever.

“Where in the Schrödinger equation is the joy of being alive?”
[Eugene Wigner, physicist]

The “Copenhagen interpretation” of 1926 shattered the notion of precise location, effectively replacing the world of great solid ships with one of probabilities and uncertainties. Quantum mechanics had strange consequences for both time and space – if even a solitary sub-atomic particle must be defined by a wave function (by a probability of where it might be) then how much more uncertain are the events of April 14th 1912? Perhaps the strength of the Titanic’s story rests in the very uncertainty of its telling.

Everybody aboard the ship experienced the same event at the moment the iceberg struck, but everyone heard a different sound. It was “Like someone tearing a long, long strip of calico” or “The ship seemed to roll over a thousand marbles” or it was “As though somebody had drawn a giant finger along the side of the ship”. The people who lived through it seemed to experience events at different times and in a different order.

Walter Lord attempted to tell the story of the Titanic from every possible viewpoint, creating a tapestry of individual tales that would intermingle and overlap. Although he recognised the futility of his task, Lord managed to arrive at a fascinating amalgam of events, and each point on his graph holds the same precision (and the same uncertainty) as the wave function of any given electron.

At the time it was written, A Night to Remember was as true a story as it was possible to tell, for the only way to define the Titanic was to write into it every possible path that was taken through time and space. The mathematical equivalent of this approach is aptly known as the sum over histories, introduced by Richard Feynman in order to prevent quantum mechanical calculations from blowing up to infinity.

“A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew,
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
[Ecclesiastes, 3,6-7]

Edith Brown’s last memory of her father is of him standing on the deck of RMS Titanic. He had just helped his wife and daughter into lifeboat No.14. She could see the chain of his 18 carat god pocket watch against his waistcoat as he stepped back into the crowd. For the rest of her life, Edith Brown carried the Titanic in her head. She took it with her on every journey that she ever made – even across the Atlantic. In December 1993, 81 years after that night, Thomas Brown’s pocket watch was placed back into the hands of his daughter. No longer the girl of fifteen setting out for America, Edith was then a frail lady of ninety-seven. In her own words, she had spent a lifetime on the Titanic.

We can only guess how many ships have passed over the Titanic’s grave in the century since her sinking. For 73 years she laid there quietly beneath the shipping lanes, along with all the vessels sunk by German U-boats during World War II, yet more conspicuous in her absence than any of them. The Titanic rested two and half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic ocean, in darkness. She existed not as a location but as an instant in history, an unfinished story passed between the generations.

Einstein taught us that time is not absolute – it moves more slowly closer to the earth’s centre of gravity. The Titanic kept her secrets until one cold night in 1985, when Dr. Robert Ballard’s crew caught a glimpse of a 17ft high boiler in the lights from their submersible. Ballard had found the Titanic by looking for her debris trail – by looking for what she left behind. He gave the Titanic her final destination, thus ending the maiden voyage which began in 1912. And he believed that this is where she should be left to rest. He felt that the ship belongs to the past, and that she has a right to remain undisturbed.

But Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that the act of looking at the stuff of the universe changes it. When Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic he consequently returned her to time. By looking at the ship once more, we have changed her.

“It is for the awe of place and time that people want to hold on to the past.”
[Marguerite Holloway, “The Preservation of the Past”, Scientific American]

In the years since Ballard’s successful expedition, the Titanic has been systematically plundered for relics of her long-lost grandeur and grace. This seems as obviously inappropriate as the plans which were revealed in the 1990s to build an exact replica of the ship. And yet without these salvage teams, Edith Brown would never have been able to hold her father’s watch.

How is it possible to decide what to retrieve from the past and what to surrender to it? And is the question any less poignant because modern physics tells us that objects are not all that solid anyway? The more fleeting something is, the more we are inclined to hold on to it – whatever the consequences.

The Titanic’s story is full of uncertainties. After the loss of so much it perhaps seems trivial to agonise over whether Thomas Brown’s pocket watch should ever have left the Atlantic. Yet over the years I have found it difficult to get the whereabouts of that watch out of my head. I think about it every time that I hear mention of the Titanic – and I hear mention of her often.

One day in the print studios at the Slade, Martin managed to talk me out of my grief over this little gold pocket watch. He said that the object itself is not the most significant thing.

“That watch has such a weight”, I protested.

“But it’s not the watch at all…” he said.

“…it’s not the watch, it’s the story“.

One hundred years after her loss, the Titanic resides simultaneously in the present and the past. She rests there (and here) essentially as a story – a story that is simply too powerful to forget.

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2 Responses to The Titanic: it’s not the watch, it’s the story

  1. Pingback: The Titanic: it’s not the watch, it’s the story | weeklyblogclub

  2. Pingback: Facing up, photography, fun and fit | weeklyblogclub

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