Titanic Movie Anniversary: Could Jack Have Survived? Scientists Weigh In

Stars of the movie 'Titanic' Leonardo DiCaprio (L) and Billy Zane (C) arrive at the movie's premier in Hollywood, California on the 14 December, 1997. Zane is accompanied by his girlfriend Jessica Murphy. Getty

Tuesday is the anniversary of Titanic. Released this month in 1997, it sparked the two-decades-long debate about whether or not Jack and Rose both could have survived on that dreaded door in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The debate was supposedly solved in Discovery Channel's MythBusterswhen the hosts of the show tested for themselves whether or not they could fit on the door. Turns out, both could have fit—but as MythBusters noted, the physics of buoyancy pushed Jack to his fate. To keep afloat and out of the water just enough to survive, Jack and Rose would have had to tie a life jacket underneath the door to make it more buoyant. But would they have been able to think of the physics behind how to keep the door afloat under such a stressful situation? The jury is still out. 

Just last month, Neil deGrasse Tyson floated a different theory to the Huffington PostJack hardly put in any effort to get on top of the door—and Tyson questioned how realistic it would be that a human would throw in the towel that quickly.

“Whether or not he could’ve been successful, I would’ve tried more than once. You try once. ‘Oh, this is not gonna work. I will just freeze to death in the water.’ No, excuse me,” Tyson told the Huffington Post. “The survival instinct is way stronger than that in everybody, especially in that character. He’s a survivor, right? He gets through. He gets by.”

The brain’s response to a crisis situation often results in a push-and-pull between our immediate instinctive abilities—fight, flight, or freeze—and our cognitive problem-solving abilities, according to Dean Mobbs, cognitive neuroscience professor at California Institute of Technology. We have a “toolbox” of strategies, as Mobbs described it, and which tool we use is often dependent on how much time we have to act.

“If you go face-to-face with a tiger, you don’t want to be thinking, you want to be reacting.” Mobbs told Newsweek. “Because if you think, by the time you decide I’m going to take this strategy over this strategy—well, you’ve already been eaten.”

But Jack had plenty of time to think, Mobbs said. Maybe his fate was due to the stress he was under—the MythBusters hosts weren’t under the same stress as Jack. Would he really have been able to think of a way to solve the buoyancy problem of the door? 

Mobbs speculates other reasons, too. Hypothermia can cause disorientation, he said. Maybe it was a simple miscalculation of the danger of just how cold it was—though that seems unlikely, considering one of the first scenes of the movie Jack recalls a childhood memory of falling through thin ice on a frozen lake at his home in Wisconsin. 

"To tell you the truth, I'm a lot more concerned about that water being so cold," Jack told Rose in the scene when he saves her from jumping ship. "Water that cold, like right down there—it hits you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body. You can't breathe. You can't think." 

GettyImages-141965164 Actress Kate Winslet attends the 'Titanic 3D' World Premeire at the Royal Albert Hall on March 27, 2012 in London, England. Getty

In a 2010 study, scientists evaluated the survival instincts in the real-life Titanic and Lusitania disasters—the latter being a tragic incident when a passenger ship en route from New York to Liverpool was sunk by a German torpedo. The Lusitania sank in less than 18 minutes, according to the study. The timing, the study said, revealed that a “stronger competition for the survival (of the fittest)” was more apparent on Lusitania. While on the Titantic, which took two hours and 40 minutes to sink, more men were willing to give up their seats on lifeboats for women, and women and children were prioritized ahead of men. Also in the Titanic, class differences affected who was able to get to the lifeboats first—which was acted out in the movie as well. 

GettyImages-142642468 Mayday communications from the RMS Titanic hang on display at the opening of the 'Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory' exhibition on April 10, 2012 in New York City. Reuters

“Nonetheless, it seems that on the more slowly sinking Titanic, prosocial behavior predominated (in a stronger manner), whereas more selfish conduct prevailed on the rapidly sinking Lusitania,” the authors concluded.

But for the Titanic fans stuck on the love plot, Mobbs speculates another more romantic insight: “Love overrides those basic instincts—[an] understandable, I think, explanation for it.” Or maybe, since this is fiction, it’s simply art—as the director James Cameron described it last month. “It makes sense, in some respects, for dramatic reasons that they would kill him off in the movie,” Mobbs said.  

GettyImages-142002495 Members of the press view exhibits during a media preview of a new exhibit 'Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,' at the National Geographic Museum which highlights the history of the Titanic and its sinking in the year 1912 March 28, 2012 in Washington, DC. Getty

Cameron told Vanity Fair last month that the debate is silly 20 years later. The reason Rose didn’t make room for Jack, according to Cameron, is “very simple because it says on page 147 [of the script] that Jack dies.”

“Obviously it was an artistic choice, the thing was just big enough to hold her, and not big enough to hold him,” he said. “The film is about death and separation; he had to die. So whether it was that, or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down. It’s called art, things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons.”