"The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping alpine-looking countryside overlooking a small canyon below. Its bow faces north. The ship sits upright on its bottom with its mighty stacks pointed upward. There is no light at this great depth and little life can be found. It is a quiet and peaceful place -- a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way. And may God bless these now- found souls."

-- Dr. Robert Ballard

Leader of the expedition that found the Titanic

ONE RARELY expects to hear such reverent words from the perpetrator of a technological miracle. But if you think a little about the accomplishment of the team of American and French scientists that found the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor last week, no other response seems possible. This is one scientific discovery whose significance does not need to be belabored. The story was retold in detail over and over week before last, but its elements were familiar, even if only from the lyrics of old summer-camp songs. Since April 14, 1912, those elements have taken firm hold in popular consciousness: the "unsinkable" design, the confident start, the calm night, the distress calls unanswered, the shortage of lifeboats, the 1,500 dead. To most of us, the Titanic story is less history than legend. And as with most legends, its theme is simple: the extravagant pride of man and technology, and the revenge of nature.

Today, "state-of-the-art technology" means to us something more powerful than the Titanic's over- confident builders could ever have imagined. It is harder and harder to remember that however far back we push the boundaries of technological civilization, the natural forces beyond that boundary remain as unforgiving as ever. Only those who work at the edge of current exploratory technology -- such as team leader Robert Ballard, whose revolutionary scanning device Argo was, like the Titanic, on its maiden voyage -- retain awareness of just what nature has the power to do. Hence, perhaps, Dr. Ballard's emotional reaction and his plea to prospective treasure-hunters "not to desecrate this memorial." Such a message will not reach everyone. Various would-be salvagers have declared their intention to search for the wreck and either raise it or strip it of valuables -- since, as they shrewdly note, nobody actually owns the stuff.

Within a week after the discovery, six congressmen had introduced legislation that would deter such buccaneering by designating the Titanic an international memorial site. Though such a measure is unlikely to discourage the more determined would-be scavengers -- one of whom told Time magazine that "you can do anything you're big enough to do out there" -- it will nevertheless be all to the good if Congress can amplify Dr. Ballard's basic message.