Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Titanic violin

The violin said to have been played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley on Titanic, with the valise. Credit : Bournemouth News
This water-stained violin was in the news last week when it was revealed to be the one played by the Titanic’s bandmaster on the night of the tragedy, as proved by seven years of testing at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. This may be a hoax. But if true, it seems that when Wallace Hartley’s body was found, his large leather valise was strapped around him with his violin inside, presumably in the hope of adding buoyancy.  

The Daily Telegraph announced it to be “the violin used by Wallace Hartley as the band famously played 'Nearer my god to thee' as the Titanic sank”.  Even if it's the right violin, the Telegraph was almost certainly wrong to repeat this well-known legend about the hymn.

Walter Lord deals thoroughly with the Titanic’s musicians and their music in his 1986 book The Night Lives on: Thoughts Theories and Revelations about the Titanic. In a chapter headed “The Sound of Music”, he devotes five pages to the question of what the band actually played. Piecing together evidence from crew and passengers, Lord thinks that the band played dance music, which they could play from memory, and which seemed best suited to keeping the passengers' spirits up. He quotes a passenger, Colonel Gracie: "If 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' was one of the selections, I assuredly would have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death, and more likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding. ..."

Lord can’t be certain; but adds that whatever the band played, they all perished, and doing so achieved immortality.  “The bravery of these men, trying to bring hope and comfort to others without a thought to their own safety, captured the public's imagination all over the world.  Editorials, speeches, sermons, and reams of worshipful poetry celebrated the deed, and letters of condolence poured into the homes of the bereaved.”

No words of sympathy

Shockingly Lord reveals that tucked in with the tributes received by the family of violinist Jock Hume, was a letter to his father dated just two weeks after the tragedy, containing no words of sympathy, just a short, crisp reminder of an unpaid uniform account in the sum of 5s. 4d due to C.W. & F. N. Black.

He explains the background to this. Until 1912 the various steamship lines dealt directly with their musicians, signing them up as members of the crew.  The pay was union scale, which worked out at £6 10s. a month, plus a monthly uniform allowance of 10s.

Then the Liverpool talent agency C. W. and F. N. Black entered the picture, offering the steamship companies a simpler and cheaper way to get onboard music.  The musicians still signed the ship's articles for a token shilling a month (putting them clearly under the captain's authority), but they were now really working for Blacks, and had to take what Blacks were willing to pay them - which turned out to be a one-third cut in pay and no uniform allowance. 

Not covered by the Act

Under the Workmen's Compensation Act, the Titanic musicians' families were entitled to claim compensation from the employer, so naturally they applied first to the White Star Line. Who however denied liability on the grounds the bandsmen were Second Class passengers and not covered by the Act.  The Line suggested that the families contact C. W. and F. N. Black, the real employers. You can guess the rest. Blacks claimed the musicians had been independent contractors. The insurance company said the bandsmen were not workmen as covered by the policy.  When the case came to court, the judge was sympathetic, but that was all. 

The musicians' union made a final appeal to White Star's sense of moral responsibility: "Three families lost their only sons - three young men ranging from 21 to 24 years of age, cut off in the prime of their life while performing an act of heroism that stirred the whole world to its depths.  Surely there is something for the White Star Company to consider over and above the mere terms of an Act of Parliament."  It did no good.

In the end, the musicians' families benefited from the Titanic Relief Fund, an umbrella organization set up to manage the charitable contributions that poured in from all over the world. 

Wallace Hartley's funeral, 18 May 1912, Colne, Lancashire
While this shabby little business was unfolding behind the scenes, in Lord’s words, front-stage the drama of the band's heroism continued.  On May 18 there occurred one of those great public funerals, dripping with melancholy pageantry, that the Victorians and Edwardians did so well.  Bandmaster Wallace Hartley's body had been retrieved from the ice-strewn waters off Newfoundland (no mention of the violin which Lord must have been unaware of) and seven bands played him to his final rest. His rosewood casket was borne shoulder-high through the winding streets of Colne, Hartley's birthplace in the hills of Lancashire. Aldermen, councillors, ambulance men, police, boys' brigades, and musicians from all over England fell in behind. The procession was half a mile long.


Meanwhile I've seen that the curator of the Titanic museum has dismissed claims that bandmaster Wallace Hartley's violin has been found as 'preposterous'. So there may be more to this story yet.

And there is. This update is 23 May 2013. The Titanic violin's authenticity has been established "beyond a reasonable doubt" by a CT scan performed at The Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire. Or at least so claimed an auctioneer to the BBC. Source: Huffington Post.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Mars: it's snowing - and microbes could have lived here

Still my favourite Mars picture. Cape St Vincent, one of the cliffs of Victoria crater. Credit: Nasa/Reuters
It's snowing on Mars – yes really, or at least it was on 27 January.  Very gently, and the snow doesn’t settle - not these days, anyway - but instead vaporises into the thin atmosphere long before it reaches the ground.

I recommend an article by Ian Sample, the Guardian’s science correspondent, for more about snow on Mars and other amazing data being sent back by NASA’s rovers there.

Rock formations on Mars
Take these two rock formations.  On 12th March NASA published these images from two different sites, which provide evidence of ancient watery environments, one hospitable to life, the other not. Before I say more, lets pause for a little gasp that we actually have pictures like this. Gasp.

That's over then. The image on the right, says NASA, indicates a once habitable environment, not too acidic or alkaline, with chemical gradients that would have created energy for microbes, and a distinctly low salinity, which would have helped metabolism if micro-organisms had ever been present.  Data from several instruments on the Curiosity rover all support this interpretation. What we see in the image are very fine-grained sediments.

Too extreme for life

The rock on the left on the other hand is evidence of an environment that is thought not to have been habitable.  NASA reaches this conclusion due to various factors. One is the extreme acidity of the water, another is extreme salinity which would have impeded metabolism.  Moreover, if any micro-organisms had ever been present, too little energy would have been available, due to very limited chemical gradients.  This rock, scientists think, was formed from sulphate-rich sandstone, and the particles were in part formed and cemented in the presence of water; and the bumps on the rock face were formed in the presence of water. 

As a footnote, we should recall that the Antarctic Lake Vida tells us to be cautious before saying “life couldn’t survive here”.  In November microbes were found thriving in conditions of extreme salinity and cold.

The two rock images have been adjusted to look as they would if they were on Earth.  The one on the right puts me in mind of a seaside rock pool but sadly that’s an illusion, there's no water there now.

See NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for more particulars of these two images and how NASA scientists interpret them.

Finally, in all the excitement we mustn’t forget that habitability is not the same thing as life. Here's a link to a discussion of Is there life on Mars?, and why after years of discovery the question still eludes us.