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OHSU Specialist Stirs Media Over New Take On The Titanic

   Portland, Ore.

Thousands may have been saved from a watery grave had it not been for faulty rivets, her Ph.D. research determined

An Oregon Health & Science University technology transfer specialist has been at the center of a burst of international media attention in recent weeks centering on new evidence she helped uncover suggesting that substandard rivets may have been as much at fault as the iceberg in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

The Titanic may have stayed afloat long enough for most if not all of the passengers to be rescued had it not been for the popping of faulty rivets causing the ship's hull to "unzip" after impact with the ice, according to a new analysis.

The evidence was uncovered during metallurgical forensic analysis that Jennifer Hooper McCarty, Ph.D., a licensing associate in the Office of Technology & Research Collaborations at Oregon Health & Science University, conducted in pursuit of her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. She completed the research last year at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in collaboration with her thesis advisor, Dr. Tim Foecke of NIST.

McCarty's and Foecke's findings were screened last month in Britain and more recently in the United States on the National Geographic Channel's "Seconds from Disaster" series. They were described in a recent article in The Times of London, and are the subject of an article soon to be published in The Washington Post. McCarty and Foecke also have written a still-to-be published book on the forensic studies of the disaster.

McCarty and Foecke developed their "weak rivet" theory about the Titanic's sinking after analyzing 48 popped wrought iron rivets from the ship's wreckage. They found that the rivets contained 9 percent of a material known as slag, which adds strength to the metal at concentrations of 2 to 3 percent but weakens it at higher percentages. The National Geographic special reveals their first attempt to mimic in the lab what actually happened to the rivets during the collision, using 1-inch steel plates fastened with rivets made to specifications used in 1911. Their experiment showed that the rivets popped at 9,000 pounds of load, or at about half the load that rivets with the proper slag content would have failed. More than 1,500 people lost their lives on April 15, 1912 in one of the most storied maritime disasters in modern history when the Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Britain to the United States, hit an iceberg and sank in just over two hours.

"Since the nearest rescue ship, the Carpathia, was only two hours away, keeping the ship afloat an additional 2-3 hours would have allowed those forced to stay behind on the sinking ship to have been shuttled to safety, and many more passengers might have survived," wrote McCarty and Foecke in their book.

What prompted McCarty to choose a study of the Titanic's rivets for her Ph.D. dissertation? "My interest has always been to capture the crossover between history and technology," she said. " The Titanic is a perfect example of this, where the historical and scientific details intersect from its conception to its destruction. In the case of the rivets, our scientific results are supported again and again by survivor testimony, shipyard records and the technology typical of early 20th century Britain."

McCarty joined the staff of OHSU's Office of Technology & Research Collaborations in October 2005 where she negotiates sponsored research agreements, material transfer agreements, and the licensing of university discoveries to the commercial sector. Prior to coming to OHSU, McCarty was a guest researcher and consultant at NIST, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford where she did metallographic analyses of 18th-20th century rail materials from the National Railway Museum in York (UK) and Roman coin deposits, and a research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Materials Research and Education. Besides her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, she holds an M.S.E. degree in materials science and engineering from that institution and a B.S. in chemistry from Temple University.


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