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The Titan submersible: Science or trendy tourism?

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On June 18, 2023, the privately owned, unclassified submersible Titan attempted to descend to a depth of 12,500 feet below the sea’s surface in order that its five wealthy occupants might watch a video from the vessel’s cameras of the wrecked RMS Titanic, the famed maritime disaster which led to the deaths of over 1,500 people — most of them far less wealthy “third-class” passengers. About two hours into its descent, the vessel imploded, resulting in the deaths of those inside. The owning company OceanGate, whose CEO Stockton Rush was piloting the craft, had intentionally circumvented established passenger safety standards in the name of what Rush called “innovation.” But was any part of that so-called expedition actually scientific? This author would argue: absolutely not. 

 

Science, in its greatest form, is a work of passion. Passion to learn about the world around you, your fellow humans, or far-flung stars — in an ideal world, one could devote themselves to these things out of the same love that spurs you to ask your friends about themselves. 

 

Needless to say, this is not an ideal world. The history of scientific endeavors is stained with unethical experimentation and discrimination, and the present is additionally marred by a socioeconomic system that demands everything under the sun turn a profit. Even so, there are things that may be learned, horrific as their origins may be. 

 

The Titan trip, though horrific, was not an act of science. The men on that vessel did not pay $250,000 to understand the marvels of the deep sea, nor even to examine the circumstances of the shipwreck they traveled to. (Of course, if they had studied that history, they may not have gotten on board that submarine. Like the White Star Line of the Titanic, the CEO of OceanGate had previously made his opinion of safety certifications known, claiming that they were “anathema to rapid innovation.”) Instead, they acted as tourists to the tragic site of a mass grave. 

 

Neither was Titan anywhere near the only absurd and expensive tourist opportunity on offer for those billionaires willing to pay the price. From rockets to submarines, the past few years have

seen a variety of expeditions piggybacking off the work of actual scientists in order for their wealthy passengers to reinforce a sense of superiority to the poorer ninety-nine percent, without contributing anything to scientific progress. No, if there is any scientific value to Titan, it is merely this: further evidence to an ever-growing mountain of it that the so-called science of the mega-rich is a deadly playground. 

 

Disclaimer: this author will most likely never have $250,000 to spend on anything, much less a tourist trip. 

 

hanson44@stolaf.edu

Elias Hanson is from Chaska, Minn. His major is Environmental Studies.