From the Editor: Fateful Encounters

The Titanic and the elusive nature of perception

A life vest from the Titanic. NMAH, SI

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”
Anaïs Nin

One hundred years after an innocent iceberg was struck by the world’s most famous ocean liner, we find ourselves riding the latest wave of Titanic obsession. James Cameron’s blockbuster movie is being re-released in theaters, this time in 3-D. Fans have paid as much as $60,000 for a seat in a submarine to view the wreckage on the ocean floor. More than 5,000 items recovered from the sunken vessel—demitasse cups, gold jewelry, eyeglasses, binoculars—are being auctioned off in New York, at an estimated valuation of $189 million. On the centennial of the Titanic’s launch, the cruise ship Balmoral will depart Southhampton, England, and retrace the doomed ship’s route, carrying among its passengers descendants of Titanic survivors.

As Andrew Wilson writes in his riveting account of those survivors (“Shadow of the Titanic”), the tragedy stalked many the rest of their lives. But the ship has also haunted all of us, vanishing and resurfacing at almost regular intervals. It has proved unsinkable after all. Since the night it went down, the Titanic has repeatedly bobbed back up in major, culture-shifting ways. And each time it has taken on a slightly different meaning, becoming a vessel of ideas that have changed with our changing perspective.

It seems fitting, then, that when we return to the events of that fateful night with a provocative new explanation for the disaster, it hinges on an optical illusion, a trick of perception that might explain why the lookouts didn’t spy the lethal iceberg and why the ship nearby misinterpreted the Titanic’s distress signals (“Optical Illusion”).  

In fact, this whole issue is devoted to the tricky theme of perception. On page 20, Diane Ackerman, the award-winning poet and essayist and author of A Natural History of the Senses, kicks off our new front-of-the-book section, which is devoted to reports on new ways we’re perceiving the world. Columnist Ron Rosenbaum profiles Errol Morris, who approaches his subjects with the magnifying eye of a private detective, and who has, almost overnight, transformed our perception of him from quirky filmmaker to acute public intellectual.

And what is photography but the fine art of capturing a moment of perception? We begin our special photo portfolio with a sly new poem by the two-time poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, who tangles gracefully with the problems of photography and memory. The rest of the section presents the new stars of photography, just emerging into the light, as seen through the keen eyes of such masters as Cindy Sherman, Mary Ellen Mark and Bruce Weber.

Enjoy the issue. And remember, always keep your sense of perspective.

P.S. For a different perception of this issue, you can download the iPad version of Smithsonian from Apple’s App store.

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