Couldn't sink

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom recalls a photograph (there are several variants of the same scene, taken in 1900) of a man "floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open." He is correct that you "Couldn't sink if you tried: so thick with salt," but he cannot quite recall the "law" responsible for this result.

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Bloom's muddled version: "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, 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. (Theoretically, a body that weighed enough could sink, 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 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 scientific 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 equivalency with 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 an entirely submerged object, or to that portion of the volume of a partially submerged object which is below the surface, and clearly this volume will determine the displacement weight.

Bloom's "Couldn't sink if you tried" extends his daydream about Ceylon, another exotic eastern locale where people can "float about" on "big lazy leaves," not doing a lick of work and "Too hot to quarrel." In a chapter where he is struggling to keep his head above water, unsinkability has the seductive beauty of a drug vision.

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