Friday, August 20, 2010

Saving 1,522 lives on the Titanic with technology from the Langseth: fact or fiction?

My girlfriend once asked me a question a while ago, "why do you study ancient volcanism?" I must admit I found it a little difficult communicating in clear and simple terms the motive behind what I do. " I want to know why Earth works the way it does," I remember explaining. I also tried justifying my interest in using computers to investigate the earth: " You know, developments in existing seismic methods borrow from the fields of mathematics and medical imaging. Who knows, methods developed in this research may someday be used in other fields." I still convince myself that this is true. In reality, most scientists just love asking "why?" and sometimes we get amazing answers that lead to enormous technological benefits, most of which were not planned in the first place. This is a story of how technology in use on the Langseth inherits a lot from the curiosity and dedication of scientists who asked "why?" Oh! and how things may have been different on the Titanic with these technologies.

I start with three names. Two are popular, the last maybe not so. They are Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci and Isidor Rabi. I mention their names because they were pioneers, and their curiosity and research lead to 3 important technologies. Everyone knows Einstein. He is reputably the most influential and greatest scientist that ever lived. To him we owe the theories of general and special relativity. It was because Einstein asked the question "What is gravity?" that led Isidor Rabi and others to pioneer work on developing the atomic clock. In our attempt to understand the atomic world, scientist successfully built highly accurate clocks. These clocks are fundamental to the functioning of the Global Positioning System or GPS.

Isidor Rabi is not so well known, but this doesn't make his contribution less important. He pioneered work on building accurate atomic clocks. And then there is Leonardo da Vinci. He is more famous for the Mona Lisa, but he was also a scientist and inventor, and to him the field of acoustics owes the experimentalists curiosity on the behavior of sound waves.

It was Leonardo da Vinci, as early as 1490, who first observed : “If you cause your ship to stop and place the head of a long tube in the water and place the outer extremity to your ear, you will hear ships at a great distance from you.” So pioneering the basis of acoustic methods. Duayne and Kai have shown how the Langseth conducts seismic experiments with sound sources. Acoustic methods are also used by marine mammal observers (MMOs) to listen to aquatic life. With the sound sources, accurate positioning made available by GPS, and the theory of sound, we can image Earth's interior. See the connection? Curiosity encapsulated in scientific endevour is the seed of technology. With this technology we can do better science, and also we reap enormous social benefits.

But I still haven't explained the Titanic connection. Yes, I'll admit it, I put in the Titanic connection to get the reader to follow me to the end of this post. But truthfully, let's revisit the history. Apart from the hubris of the engineers, at least that's what the movie Titanic suggests, could our application of science have saved the 1, 522 people who perished on board the titanic? Arguably so. Ten years following the tragedy, the Submarine Signal company of Boston commenced work on developing sonar devices to prevent such navigation hazards. And actually the first of these devices in the United States in 1914 by Reginald A. Fessenden. So with sound sources we could actually have prevented the disaster, and with GPS we could have very easily located the Titanic and saved more lives. Fact or Fiction? Fact!

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