Next month will mark the centennial of the night when the RMS Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg. However, one Texas State professor insists that there was an accomplice to the incident — the moon.
“Why were there so many icebergs in the water?” said Donald W. Olson, professor of physics. “They said it was a warm winter, but we’ve got something new.”
Olson expands on a theory by tide expert Fergus Wood stating the moon was in rare perigee in January of that year. It was the closest the moon had come to Earth in more than 1,000 years or will come in another 200. As a result, the tides in the months leading up to the Titanic’s sinking were unusually strong.
Initially, Wood theorized the iceberg had traveled from a glacier near Greenland, but Olson argues since icebergs take around two years to travel, that kind of rapid transportation is not probable. Instead, Olson said a grounded iceberg near the coast of Newfoundland was lifted by the intense tides.
“The closest approach of the moon to the center of the Earth in more than 1,400 years happened in January 1912,” Olson said. “The effect of that could cause high tides, refloat the ice bergs, and float them back into the current.”
Olson also points to tidal records from early 1912, when record high tides were measured worldwide, including events in Australia and New Zealand.
The lunar perigee was supported by the research of Roger W. Sinnott, a senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope.
“I wrote a program that calculated for any given date how far away the moon would be and the periods when it is closest to the Earth,” Sinnott said. “I set the computer running for a long period of years, and I came up with the date of January 4, 1912.”
Later on, Sinnott would use this research to assist Olson. Coincidentally, Sinnott was already interested in the Titanic incident before Olson announced his intention to write on
“I even named one of my cats Carpathia,” Sinnott said. The RMS Carpathia was the ship which arrived to rescue survivors of the wreck.
Because of Sinnott’s abilities in measuring the lunar perigee, he is listed as one of Olson’s co-authors in the article. The other was Russell L. Doescher, senior lecturer of physics.
“The stuff we do is the stuff people find interesting. It’s fun to read about and fun to do, and accessible to everybody,” Doescher said.
Doescher has been involved with this type of research since his master’s thesis, which concerned the influence of the tide on Paul Revere’s ride.
Olson and Doescher are already planning their next project, but for now their lips are sealed.
“Imagine that I was working with J.K. Rowling and someone asked what would happen in the next Harry Potter novel,” Doescher said. “I can’t tell!”
As for now, Texas State’s astronomy professors will keep enjoying the heavens.
“The moon’s one of my favorite things,” Doescher said. “That, and peppermint.”