Distress Call - Titanic - 41.44 N 50.24 W

Friday, April 13, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic, a ship declared “virtually unsinkable”, struck an iceberg and went down on its maiden voyage, slowly sinking into the icy waters with over 1,500 people still aboard.  The Titanic was advertised as the safest ship on the seas, so how did it sink?  The main threads of the story are well-known:  the over-confident captain, the fateful collision with the iceberg that ripped open five watertight compartments (engineers had calculated that the ship could withstand the flooding of four), the horrific loss of life.  The stories of heroism are the most poignant for me, as the passengers came to the realization that there were not enough life boats and some remained on board so that others could survive.

Titanic was one of three Olympic-class ocean liners.  A few years later, did engineers learn from this mishap?  Her younger sister ship,HMHS Britannic, incorporated a number of design changes to address the flaws in Titanic , such as a double-hull in vulnerable areas.  Even so, she sank on 21 Nov 1916 after striking a German mine.  Radio distress calls have also improved and standardized since then (Alexander B. Magoun, The Titanic’s Role in Radio Reform  IEEE Spectrum).  The wireless operators on the Titanic sent out numerous calls for help.  The first communication after the accident was sent at 12:15am,  “CQD CQD CQD CQD CQD CQD DE MGY MGY MGY MGY MGY MGY position 41.44 N. 50.24 W” (The RMS Titanic Radio Page).  The repeated distress code of “CQD” is followed by “DE”, which stands for “this is”, and then the repeated “MGY” is the call sign of the Titanic.  The position is given in latitude and longitude.  So the message would be interested “Distress Call - Titanic, position 41.44 N. 50.24 W”  Later messages also used the recently introduced “SOS” distress signal.  While several ships responded to the stream of communication over the next two hours, the closest one had turned off its radio for the night just minutes before the disaster and never got the message. 

Even one hundred years later, have engineers learned from previous maritime disasters, so that we no longer risk loss of life at sea?  Not yet —a modern cruise ship, the MS Costa Concordia , struck a rock on 13 January 2012, ripping open five compartments of the engine room.  Over thirty people lost their lives even though the ship did not sink, but ran aground (the death toll was much lower than the Titanic in part because the accident happened near shore in relatively warm and shallow water) .  Here too, the captain appeared to be overconfident, cruising too close to shore while relying on sight rather than radar or maps.  I am amazed that the company that owns such an expensive ship entrusted a $500 million vessel to the whims of a single person, no matter how trustworthy.  Why didn’t they install some communication equipment that would immediately sound an alarm (and perhaps over-ride the captain’s commands) if the ship strayed outside safe waters?  Of course in hindsight we can always think of a better way.

Engineers will forever be building a “better mousetrap” based on that hindsight.  Humankind will continue to improve the safety and security in our products.  At the same time, nature will continue to surprise us.  Earthquakes will shake our faith in technology and tidal waves will overwhelm our defenses.  Human operators will continue to fall asleep at the switch.  Terrorists will find ways to twist good technology to evil purposes.  Automating our technology, e.g., computer-driven self-driving automobiles, might make us a bit safer, but we will never achieve complete safety since humans design the automation, humans still can neglect or subvert the technology, and nature itself still surprises us. 

How safe should we make our devices?  Our first instinct might be to make them “as safe as possible”.  How safe do you want your next cellphone to be?  As safe as possible?  Even if that means it costs a million dollars and weighs more than your refrigerator? Every technological product is designed as a series of unavoidable trade-offs.  Thicker steel plating will make a car safer, but also uglier and less fuel-efficient.  Redundant control systems can eliminate single points of failure, but the added complexity may introduce unforeseen problems and certainly increases the product cost.  Sophisticated medical equipment may prolong life, but at such a high cost that it only serves the very wealthy.  End-of-life choices include a number of trade-offs:  determining how much technology and medicine to use, choosing when to forbear, and deciding when to pull the plug. We could live longer, but sometimes that life is filled with nausea, severe limitations, and unbearable pain.  “Doctors don’t want to die any more than anyone else does. But they usually have talked about the limits of modern medicine with their families. They want to make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic measures are taken.” (Ken Murray,  Why Doctors Die Differently, Wall Street Journal, 25 Feb 2012)

We make trade-offs not only within a particular design, but also between one design and the next. The safest designs are the ones that have been tested heavily:  proven reliable even when pushed to the limit in diverse environments.  Thus we would likely be safer if we simply continued using tried and true designs.  Nevertheless, proven designs become stale.  They stifle creativity.  A novel design is, by its very nature, dangerous.  It has no track record and thus entails some risk.  That new design might even be safer than the old, once the bugs are worked out.  The only way to discover that better approach is to provide the freedom to explore a bit, even in the face of risk.  Think of it as the small perturbation used in an engineering optimization algorithm that is necessary to jostle ourselves out of a local minimum while searching for the global minimum. 

Do I want to live in safety?  Yes, but not at any cost—not at the expense of beauty, creativity, justice, and stewardship.  We can never have it all.  Instead we are constantly balancing competing goods.  This is not a cause for despair, but rather a call to recognize our limitations and to recognize the choices that are necessary due to those limitations.  God created us as finite beings in a finite world.  We have enormous capacity for creativity and insight, but that ability is not infinite and our resources are not limitless.  We have the wonderful opportunity to creatively explore those constraints as stewards of God’s creation.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest