The approach of April 1 calls for my annual visit to the world of pseudoscience. And with the film "Titanic" -- the 18th about the sinking -- winning 11 Academy Awards last week, what better time to write of a novel that believers in extrasensory perception say had warned of the disaster.
My information source is Martin Gardner's recently reissued "The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?" (Prometheus Books).
Gardner, a self-described "fringe watcher," is a long-standing critic of the paranormal. This book provides skeptics with answers to those who offer the coincidence of an event with the premonition of an earlier dream or a psychic's prediction and demand, "How do you explain that?" Whether believers would listen to his reasonable answers is another matter.
The Titanic sank in 1912. Fourteen years earlier, in 1898, Morgan Robertson, a native of Oswego, wrote a short novel titled "Futility." (For obvious reasons, it was republished in 1912 as "The Wreck of the Titan.")
There are, indeed, many quite remarkable parallels between the wreck that occurs in this novel and the sinking of the Titanic:
First, of course, is the coincidence of Robertson's fictitious name, Titan, with the real Titanic.
Robertson's Titan was 800 feet long; the Titanic, 882.5.
Both ships were all steel with three propellers and two masts.
Each was built to carry about 3,000 people.
The gross tonnage of the Titan was 46,328; the Titanic, 45,000.
The Titan's horsepower was 40,000; the Titanic's, 46,000.
Each was described as the largest passenger ship ever built.
Both were considered unsinkable until they went down in the North Atlantic.
There were far too few lifeboats on either ship.
The Titan was traveling at 24 knots; the Titanic, 22.5.
Both wrecks were in the month of April.
Both struck an iceberg on the starboard side near midnight.
One believer in the paranormal estimated the probability of all these coincidences as one in 4 billion.
Inspired by what she saw as a wonderful example of precognition, the spiritualist Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote to Robertson to ask about his purported power. She said he replied, "I do not doubt that it is because all creative workers get into a hypnoid, telepathic and percipient condition, in which, while apparently awake, they are half-asleep and tap, not only the better informed minds of others, but the subliminal realm of unknown facts. Some, as you know, believe that in this realm there is no such thing as time, and (this) partly explains prophesy."
Without a doubt, this novel represents the best case for believers in precognition.
Coincidences do happen, but Gardner reduces those odds with reasonable explanations. (In fact, even parapsychologist Jule Eisenbud reduced them to one in just over a thousand because many properties -- such as length and weight -- are related.)
Here are some of the things Gardner invites us to consider:
In 1892, six years before Robertson's novel was published, the White Star Line announced construction of a ship with dimensions similar to those of his story.
The names Titan and Titanic both fit the pattern of names already used by the White Star fleet: Oceanic, Olympic, Majestic and Gigantic.
Robertson set out to tell of a sea disaster. Where better to place it than the North Atlantic shipping lanes? What could cause it? At that time ship-iceberg collisions were common and often fatal.
Finally, as in the case of dreams and psychic predictions, among thousands of sea stories, we should expect a few to come true.
Clearly, the novel was prophetic -- but were ESP, precondition or telepathy involved? I join Gardner in his evaluation -- nonsense.