Saturday, 20 September 2014

An Interview with Parks Stephenson

Parks Stephenson
He was the Project Manager and chief forensic analyst in the team of Naval Architects who investigated and analysed the Titanic wreckage. The results of the findings were featured in a National Geographic special, while he co-authored and illustrated the book, "Exploring The Deep: The Titanic Expeditions" with James Cameron.

Graduating in Naval Science from the United States Naval Academy, Parks has had a dynamic multidisciplinary career all along. Currently, he works as the Systems Engineering Manager at Moog Inc. 
In this interview with Learn Ship Design, we get a glimpse of the challenges faced in the expedition and similar marine forensic projects and the secret behind his success in multidisciplinary efforts.

It You were an integral part of the research outcome of Titanic’s so called Achilles Heel. In reference to that, how would you describe the structural problems Titanic had ?

I don’t find that the Olympic-class ships had any significant structural weaknesses.  When I first started studying Titanic, the fact that she broke apart during the sinking seemed to suggest that there might have been some sort of structural weakness somewhere.  But after years of study of both the Titanic and Britannic wreck sites, where we could, for the first time, look at the wrecks from an architectural perspective, we increasingly found evidence that the design of that class of ship was actually quite robust.  Britannic’s structure has not noticeably sagged despite her lying on her side (where the loads are different than the structure was originally designed to support) and the fact that Titanic’s mid section broke into large chunks (with decks still supported by large uptakes) demonstrate that the H&W engineers took measures to mitigate potential problems in their up-scaling of previous designs.  Added to this was Olympic’s maintenance record until her end of life…she required no more, and maybe even less, re-work to her structure than her peers in order to keep her in service.

Share with us one unforgettable moment that you came across, during the Titanic’s scientific expedition. 

My most memorable moments came during the discovery of the Marconi and Turkish Bath rooms.  I had done much research into those rooms beforehand and it was interesting to compare what I expected to what was found.  In the case of the Marconi Room, it was entirely unlike what we expected.  In the Turkish Bath, it was almost exactly what we expected. The lessons learned from this experience helped to shape my forensic analysis going forward.  Another single moment happened during my dive to the wreck.  Our submersible passed over the starboard fidley grate that Lightoller claimed to have been first pinned against, and subsequently expelled from, that grate.  Unseen in the 2D imagery, but obvious when seen with the naked eyeball, was that the grate in question is actually bulged out from some pressure originating from within the ship.  This was physical confirmation of Lightoller’s account, which was very exciting to see…the past had a physical connection to the present.

What according to you, are the fundamental barriers faced during any marine forensic project?

The main barrier is time and budget…there never seems to be enough of either.  A wreck’s exploration does not submit easily to someone’s planned budget or schedule.  In Titanic’s case, especially, another factor is the pre-conceived notions of an entire community of “experts” and enthusiasts, who will defend what they think they know of the story against any rebuttal, any evidence, against it.  Unfortunately, in a popular story like Titanic’s, there is also a lot of pseudo-science conducted in order to make headline-grabbing charges, like we saw recently with the “brittle steel” and “weak rivet” theories.  For example, actual scientists would demonstrate the fragility of a steel under freezing conditions without really understanding the historical context; in this case, not accounting for the fact that there was an operating boiler room, generating heat in excess of 100 degrees F, on the other side of the steel.

Your journey from being a Naval Officer to working on the aeronautical sphere, then as an analyst in marine investigation, authoring books and producing documentaries and movies. How has it been all through? What is the driving force behind the multi-disciplinary You, Parks?

I have a natural curiosity that drives me in more areas than just Titanic. I feel that mysteries can be solved if we can just look past the myths that grow around the events and see them from their most fundamental perspective. In order to distinguish myth from fact, though, one needs evidence, and in the case of Titanic, the wreck itself is our last and most definitive source for evidence. I am not interested in just Titanic, I want to understand what really happened in history so that we can learn, and react to, the correct lessons today.

Should students pursuing Naval Architecture be academically exposed to guided projects related to marine forensics? Do you think that would create a better understanding of the subject if universities took this initiative? 

Any forensic effort should of course include schooling in the basic disciplines to that effort.  But one should also be more rounded, so that one can “think out of the box.”  A naval architect, for instance, should strive to sail in the ships in which he/she builds (or similar).  But even that’s not enough.  If one is exploring a shipwreck, one must also understand the time period in which she sailed, understand the thought processes of the individuals who sailed in her…see the world of that time through their eyes.  Myth begins when people put their own perspectives, their own time prejudices, on a study of the past.  When a story becomes too pat – as is Titanic’s, in my opinion – then that is the time to question our understanding. To answer your question properly, though, I do believe that any education into a given forensic field should come with practical experience. It is not enough to just learn about the subject, one must also practice it before one can really become qualified.

Parks, Titanic II hopefully sails out in 2016. Will you take the first voyage? 

If a berth is offered to me, I will go. But I am somewhat ambivalent to the entire project.  There is no replicating Titanic, no matter how exact they capture the details of the original.  In my opinion, there are actually attempting a replica of Olympic.  Titanic is really nothing more than Olympic with a disaster added, and since they cannot offer a disaster as part of their cruise package, the ship can never be Titanic.  Besides, the new ship can never BE the old ship…we live in a different world than the one in 1912.  You will be sailing on a ship whose design is not suited for the modern commercial world, with modifications to try and make it competitive enough to stay economically viable.   As students of naval architecture, pay very close attention to any news you can gather about how the ship’s construction is progressing, and how often the design will change during the course of construction.  Ask yourself…what kind of ship will result?  Will she be a treasure, or a mongrel?