Titanic Errors

James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar,  says unspecified people at BP are "morons" after the company declined his advice on stopping the gulf oil spill. Whether they were right or wrong to do so, Hollywood's last great insight into marine operations remains a 1949 Donald Duck cartoon by Carl Barks on a method for raising ships that has been cited in patent litigation.

Ironically the Titanic case itself shows how complicated responsibility for a disaster can be. Scholars and enthusiasts are still arguing almost a century later. Here, for example, is a reminder from a libertarian Web site that the real world can't be so easily divided into cinematic villains and heroes. The "lifeboats for all" movement inspired by the Titanic's fate indirectly contributed to destabilizing another ship, the Great Lakes excursion vessel Eastland (1915). After 20 years of litigation there were no criminal convictions, and families received no compensation, according to this excellent page of Chicago Public Television.

Was Mr. Cameron's offer refused because his deep-sea exploration experience wasn't relevant, or because it could turn up possibly adverse forensic evidence, or both? A better way to involve people outside as well as within petroleum engineering in mitigating the disaster is the rapid response program of the National Science Foundation (NSF). One group is already investigating whether the chemical dispersants now being sprayed over the gulf may actually be interfering with the natural action of microbes in the sea that break down the hydrocarbons in crude oil. Perhaps Mr. Cameron should apply for a grant.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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