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Monday, April 9, 2012

The Wreck of the Titan: Fourteen Years On

In 1898 Morgan Robinson wrote a novella entitled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. About half way through it a ship, the titula Titan, an 800 foot long 'unsinkable' feat of ocean-going engineering, strikes a North-Atlantic iceberg whilst travelling a bit too fast for the conditions, which carves a gash in its starboard side and causes the ship to sink, killing more than half of her 2500 passengers (helped along by the fact that there aren't enough lifeboats to account for as many as half of them).

Fourteen years later, on April 12th 1912, the 882 foot long 'unsinkable' Titanic, steaming across the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage, hits an iceberg which carves a gash in its starboard side, causing the ship to sink, with over half of her 2200 passengers perishing (helped along by a distinct lack of lifeboats).

Coincidence?

Well, yes, actually. There are many, many people who like to label Robinson's novella as a prophecy, a foretelling of what is arguably the world's greatest disaster*. This comes, as in so many situations, from a general misunderstanding of things like chance, likelihood and probability. The idea is that if something is unlikely then that means it can't happen, and that if it does then happen some greater power must have caused it is one that pervades much of society.

Creationism/Intelligent Design**'s main argument swings on the fact that spontaneous production of a protein is really, really unlikely. This, of course, means it can't happen, and the fact that it did happen must then be evidence that some kind of magic being had a hand in it all. As a maths teacher I see this kind of thinking all the time: the idea that rolling a 6 on a standard die, for example, is less likely than getting a 2 is the larval stage of the hideous levels of miscomprehension required to 'understand' the I.D likelihood fallacy.

In day-to-day life we all suffer from the same attack of superstition when we're encountered with coincidence: a song comes on the radio, and I was only humming it to myself this morning; my phone goes off and it's a message from someone I mentioned to a colleague only 10 minutes ago; I run into an old friend in Sainsbury's by chance. We notice these events because they are unlikely: their very unusualness makes them stand out like a sore thumb. If we take a step back and see them against the background of our lives, it's fairly easy to see that they're nothing out of the norm, as long as we can get it into our heads that something being unlikely isn't the same as it being impossible. In fact, if unlikely things never happened, then we'd have real cause to be concerned.

Coincidences happen because they're unlikely: things that are impossible simply don't happen; things that are likely happen so often that we're used to them, so they don't stick out.

That said, delving into a fantasy world now and then isn't necessarily a bad thing. We just need to make sure we can still tell which is which.



Incidentally, the novella mentioned at the beginning of this post is available for free if you have a Kindle. Here's the link: Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan, by Morgan Robinson.






* I'll pre-empt possible comments about the September 11th World Trade Centre attack. Whilst nearly twice as many people lost their lives in that horrific event as did aboard the Titanic, I don't see it as being even nearly in the same league: The Titanic tragedy was a culmination of human error, incompetence and plain bad luck - an accident - whereas 9/11 was a planned, malicious attack.
** Yes, I know they're not the same thing, but if you can find a real difference that stands up to mediocre criticism, I'll give you a twix.