After watching a documentary in which survivors of the April 1912 R.M.S. Titanic sinking recalled hearing a loud cracking noise when the ship struck an iceberg, metallurgical engineering Professor H.P. “Phil” Leighly suspected that the noise offered a clue to what caused the “unsinkable” Titanic to sink. 

“When steel breaks,” Leighly said, “you expect a groaning, not a cracking sound … unless the steel is brittle.”  

In 1997, Leighly and undergraduate metallurgical engineering students tested more than 400 pounds of steel from the luxury ocean liner’s hull and bulkhead in an effort to figure out why the steel-hulled ship cracked. Their impact tests on the steel confirmed Leighly’s hunch: that steel was about 10 times more brittle than modern steel when tested at freezing temperatures — the estimated temperature of the water at the time the Titanic struck the iceberg. The metallurgical engineering professor also concurred with other experts, who said the ship’s faulty design was partially to blame. But Leighly added another fault: “Hubris.” Leighly and his undergraduate research assistant, Katherine Felkins, a 1998 graduate, published their findings in 1998 in the Journal of Metals.

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