In Lotus Eaters Bloom recalls a photograph (there are several shots of the same scene, taken in 1900) of a man "in the dead sea floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open." He is correct that in the Dead Sea you "Couldn't sink if you tried: so thick with salt." He cannot quite recall the "law" responsible for this result, which was formulated by the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes in the 3rd century BCE, but in making an effort to remember its particulars he seems to be trying to pull himself out of the lotus-like dream of "The far east" that he has been indulging for more than twenty sentences. The seductive qualities of his imagined Ceylon—warmth, indolence, effortless floating—give way, via the photograph, to scientific logic.
Bloom's only slightly muddled version of the science is:
"Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body
in the water is equal to the weight of the what? Or is it the
volume is equal to the weight?" The relevant part of
Archimedes' investigation of displacement holds that any solid
body submerged in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the
weight of the fluid displaced by that body—i.e., "the
weight of the water," Bloom's initial hunch—with the
result that the body appears to weigh that much less. Because
the waters of the Dead Sea contain an extraordinarily high
percentage of dissolved salts, they weigh much more than water
normally does, and human bodies float effortlessly. (A body
that weighed enough could sink, theoretically, but its
apparent weight would still be lessened in proportion to the
heavy water it displaced.)
As with his speculations
about the sun's rays in Calypso, Bloom is dimly
recalling science lessons he learned twenty years earlier, in
a class that he now reflects on: "Vance in High school
cracking his fingerjoints, teaching. The college curriculum."
He has forgotten the precise principle, but he retains the
basic concepts necessary for understanding why bodies float in
the Dead Sea: the "weight of the body in the water" has
some kind of mathematical relationship to the "weight of
the water," and the weight of the water has something to
do with its being "thick with salt." Nor is he
completely off the mark when he thinks, "Or is it the
volume is equal to the weight?" Archimedes did reflect
on the fact that the volume of displaced fluid is equal to the
volume of a submerged object, or to that portion of the volume
of a partially submerged object which is below the surface.
Clearly this volume will determine the displacement weight.
In a chapter where Bloom is struggling to keep his head above water, unsinkability has the seductive beauty of a drug vision. His "Couldn't sink if you tried" extends his daydream about Ceylon, and the chapter will end with him thinking once again of floating in a womb of warm water, "sustained, buoyed lightly upward." But scientific analysis seems to give him a way of distancing himself from the druglike state. Something similar happens throughout Sirens, where music exerts a strong emotional pull on Bloom, threatening to drag him down into sadness, but reflections on the science of music provide him with a defense mechanism. In one such instance, he seems to be thinking back, in a much more muddled way, to the laws of fluid displacement and gravitational acceleration featured in Lotus Eaters: "Because the acoustics, the resonance changes according as the weight of the water is equal to the law of falling water."