'Ghosts of the Titanic' -- wonders never cease

June 18, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff

"Ghosts of the Titanic," by Charles Pellegrino. William Morrow. 280 pages. $25.

How much more do we need or want to know about the Titanic?

"Ghosts of the Titanic'' is the second study of the oceans' most famous sinking by Charles Pellegrino, and he promises us a third. According to the publishers, his first book -- "Her Name, Titanic'' -- "powered'' the movie, which for most people might be definitive study enough of the disaster.

Pellegrino is a space scientist and paleontologist. He also is something of a psychologist, psychic and philosopher. It is a mixture that gives this book a particular resonance. As much as the book is indeed what the subtitle calls "an archaeological odyssey,'' it is also an absorbing account of a personal epiphany, with the 1912 disaster forcing Pellegrino to reflect on the wisdom and arrogance that can be spawned by technology.

Throughout the book, human drama is intertwined with scientific theory and insight. Pellegrino even reports the discovery in the wreck of the "rusticle,'' a combination of life forms producing a unique cocktail of chemicals with potential medical application.

As in most thoughtful detection, the detail is what matters. Among the book's proclaimed revelations is the fate of the Grand Stairway, not, I must admit, a mystery that had previously occupied too much of my thought. When the robotic cameras started to search the wreck, two and a half miles down, there was no sign of the massive, oak-framed stairway. Initially, the theory was that wood-boring mollusks had devoured it. If 200 pounds of the wreck's metal is still being eaten daily by the primitive rusticle, it seemed reasonable that other hungry critters could have made short work of the staircase.

But, at the foot of the empty stairwell, there was a puzzling lack of uneaten bits of wood, or any of the inedible brass and linoleum left by the dining bacteria.

Then the prying robotic camera showed an 18-inch-wide solid oak beam that had pounded its way into one of the nearby rooms. It was covered by a layer of dissolved ceiling plaster, suggesting it settled on the floor before the other debris began to fall.

All this convinces the author that the Grand Stairway was dislodged by the force of the water as the sundered hull descended. It shot up through the dome, and floated away.

Most of the book focuses on the human drama of the sinking, detailing with impressive precision the who, what, where, why and how of individual fates and experiences.

Pellegrino, who coined the phase immunogenetics in the 1980s, is also scientifically assured.

But he admits to doubts over how to handle the discovery of the rusticle -- "a whole new set of genes." He describes them as "the synthesis of a whole group of bacteria, fungi, and apparently even archaea working together to protect their consortial 'homeland.' ''

In laboratory experiments, they were able to generate antibiotic chemicals, holding out the hope of new drugs, perhaps even anti-carcinogenic agents.

To patent or not to patent? He debates the issue in correspondence with co-discoverer Roy Cullimore. Cullimore, affronted by the prospect of commercial and legal frenzy and alive to the dangers of scientific arrogance, persuades him to throw the patent into the waste bin. Pellegrino promises the last part of his absorbing Titanic trilogy in another decade, and predicts that at least 20 percent of the findings in this book will be found wrong. Stand by for revelations revised.

Gilbert Lewthwaite, a foreign and national correspondent with The Sun for more than 29 years, has reported on land, air and sea disasters around the world. He has pondered on the fate of the Titanic while crossing the North Atlantic aboard the QEII.

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