Today, a message in the wrong medium has much to
tell us. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I blink my eyes as I go from
the I-MAX theater back into sunshine. I've just
spent 40 minutes on the Atlantic floor with an
unlikely crew of Russian, Canadian, and American
divers, revisiting the sunken Titanic.
Everything about it was odd: that strange alliance,
forged in the late days of the cold war; the use of
I-MAX in such claustrophobic closed space.
Of course I-MAX is a Canadian invention. And the
Russians have provided a remarkable pair of
Finnish-designed submarines, called Mir-1 and
Mir-2. These submersibles can dive as deep as three
miles. The word Mir means peace, and
it recurs in Russian technology. The subs were
designed to work in a buddy system, looking after
each other at great depths.
Those inky depths are a poor place for the sweep of
I-MAX. The brightest lights carry only a few dozen
yards. Yet oceanographer Joseph MacInnis became
obsessed with doing an I-MAX after he first dove
into the Titanic in 1987. For
lighting, an American team developed a powerful new
kind of sub-sea mercury vapor lamp.
As the great four-story screen carries us down into
the wreck, it keeps cutting back to an interview
with 87-year-old Eva Hart. Eva was seven when she
and her mother got into a Titanic
lifeboat and left her father standing on deck. Now
she tends roses, plays the organ in a small English
church, and looks after a French bulldog -- like
the one she'd once played with on the
Back down below, the Mir subs collect soil and
biological samples. Titanic, it seems,
landed on very densely packed silt. Then the subs
tiptoe into the Titanic engine room --
each looking to see that the other doesn't hang up
on a loose cable or pipe. They do an eerie waltz
about the largest steam engine ever built.
Finally, pilot Anatoly Sagalevitch confesses that
he always wanted to stand on the
Titanic's bridge. He jockeys his sub
to a position where he seems to do so. This isn't
really a movie about the Titanic or
about a joint research venture. It's about dreams
and nightmares: Anatoly's, Eva's, MacInnis's.
There's also a Russian sailor applying paint to the
research vessel on the surface.
By night he paints not ships, but pictures. He's
working on an awful vision of the sinking
Titanic carrying people to Heaven and
to Hell. It looks like Hieronymus Bosch. He has no
interest in diving into the wreck. He survived a
shipwreck himself, years ago. He tells us, "I don't
need to dig about in the mud to find the
Titanic. The Titanic is
here, inside my head."
That's what this strange movie was really about. It
was about the broken ship within our minds. It was
about the way we use our creative skill to heal our
own wounds. It was about the inevitable moment when
technology becomes metaphor.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds