Whispering gallery

In Brief

Imagining a woman confessing her sins to a priest, Bloom explores a bizarre fancy that their low whispers might be overheard because of a hidden feature of the confession box: "And I schschschschschsch. And did you chachachachacha? And why did you? Look down at her ring to find an excuse. Whispering gallery walls have ears. Husband learn to his surprise. God's little joke." Whispering galleries are curved structures which transmit sound waves unusually well, allowing a person to hear the whispered words of another person at a position far removed.

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Some natural caves produce this effect, and some science museums demonstrate it with pairs of concave parabolic dishes that face one another across an empty space: standing at one focus of the resulting long ellipse, a person whispers into the nearby dish and the sounds are heard at the corresponding focal point facing the distant dish. But Bloom has probably heard of whispers carried in circular or hemispherical rooms, most particularly the famous whispering gallery in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Gifford notes that "a low whisper near one wall can be distinctly heard at the opposite wall 108 feet away."

Starting in the 1870s, the distinguished British physicist John William Strutt, Baron Rayleigh, studied this remarkable effect in St. Paul's and discovered whispering-gallery waves: sound waves that propagate by clinging to the circular walls, rather than traveling across the intervening space. In the first two decades of the 20th century Lord Rayleigh developed sophisticated wave theories to account for the phenomenon. The sound waves, it appears, travel around the circumference of the gallery via air particles that move in elliptical trajectories.

All of this is doubtless far beyond Leopold Bloom's ken, but it seems  possible, given his scientific curiosity, that he has heard of Lord Rayleigh's discoveries. The strange phenomenon of sound waves clinging to walls—illustrated here by a digital map of sound waves traveling around a cylinder of air equivalent in diameter to the cupola of St. Paul's—does uncannily echo Bloom's fanciful conceit that "Whispering gallery walls have ears."

JH 2019
  The whispering gallery in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, photographed in 2011 by Femtoquake. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  Map of a 69 Hz wave in a cylinder of air with the 33.7m diameter of the St. Paul's whispering gallery, created at the Applied Solid State Physics Laboratory of Hokkaido University Sapporo, Japan in 2012, with red and blue representing higher and lower air pressures, and distortion in the grid lines representing air particle displacements. Source: Wikimedia Commons.