Couldn't sink

Couldn't sink

In Brief

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.

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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."

John Hunt 2018
Around the Dead Sea, 1900 photograph held in the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons.