National Geographic looks at the Titanic on the centennial of its sinking

April 9, 2012
Physics
What holds the mayo?
“Sensitive Matter,” Harvard University Press

From a culinary standpoint, mayonnaise can prove divisive: Some people like it on sandwiches; others, on french fries. Many find it unpalatable. But from the perspective of French physicist Michel Mitov, it’s the condiment of choice. In “Sensitive Matter” he explains the complex series of interactions that take place in soft substances — e.g., emulsions, gels and granular materials — that we encounter every day. Why does champagne poured into a flute form bubbles? It has to do with CO2 releasing itself from the liquid and aggregating toward microcrystals in the wine or cellulose from the towel used to dry the glass. As for mayonnaise: It’s made of oil and egg yolks, which are 50 percent water. Oil and water famously don’t mix. So how can they combine to form mayonnaise? Because the yolk is also packed with lecithin molecules, which act as mediators linking the typically unfriendly substances together.

The science can get dense, but Mitov has a light touch, writing like the hip, pop-culture-loving, corduroy-jacket-wearing chemistry teacher that you always wanted but never had.

Archaeology
Hitting bottom
“Titanic: What Really Happened,” National Geographic, April

By now, following multiple books, documentaries and blockbuster films, pretty much everybody on the planet is aware that the supposedly unsinkable Titanic sank on its maiden voyage following a fateful run-in with an iceberg. This month’s issue of National Geographic revisits the ship in honor of the 100th anniversary of its sinking, which took place early in the morning of April 15, 1912. The centennial edition includes two reflective essays: One by Hampton Sides focuses on new, sophisticated imagery that provides a digitally assembled high-def map of the wreck; the other is by James Cameron, who visited the wreck several times while shooting the Oscar-winning “Titanic” (which is also, incidentally, back in theaters).

There’s not all that much new to say, but there are new things to look at. The magazine shows what it calls the first-ever complete views of the shipwreck — assembled from 1,500 digital images by a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute expedition — which allow for new insights into the ship’s descent. The bow made a fairly straight trip down to the sea floor, which it struck at some 30 knots. The other half of the ship had a tougher time. “The stern, lacking a hydrodynamic leading edge, like the bow, descended even more traumatically, tumbling and corkscrewing as it fell,” writes Sides. The iPad version of the article offers expanded content, including a 360-degree view of the ship’s bow and an animation of its final, disastrous plunge.

Aaron Leitko


Book cover, “Sensitive Matter” by Michel Mitov.
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