In Brief

Bloom extricates himself from his idyllic reverie of floating lightly in the Dead Sea by trying to recall exactly how a floating body's displacement of water reduces its weight, and then he extends that scientific line of thought by wondering, "What is weight really when you say the weight? Thirtytwo feet per second per second. Law of falling bodies: per second per second. They all fall to the ground. The earth. It's the force of gravity of the earth is the weight." Here once again his memories of high school science may have dimmed a bit, but he retains the essential idea. Gravity is the force responsible both for weight and for the fact that, with every passing second, the speed of "falling bodies" increases by about 32 feet per second. His awareness of gravitational force pulling on the human body is maintained throughout the novel.

Read More

It is essentially correct, if a little imprecise, to say that "the force of gravity of the earth is the weight." According to the law of universal gravitation formulated by Isaac Newton in 1686, all objects with mass attract one another by a force that decreases in proportion to the square of the distance between them. Any two objects will be drawn more or less powerfully toward one another depending on how much mass each has and how much distance separates them. This pulling force is experienced as weight. A body with more mass has more weight and a less massive one has less, but if they were not pulled by the earth (or some other object) neither would have any weight at all. On the Moon, as experience has now confirmed, a human body will weigh less because of the planet's lesser mass, even though its own mass remains the same. On an elevator, riders will feel heavier if the car suddenly starts upward and lighter if it suddenly stops. Mass is an absolute quantity, but weight is a relative one.

The second teaching that Bloom recalls, "Thirtytwo feet per second per second," is a formula for describing acceleration. In a vacuum, with no friction to slow its descent, a dropped object will reach a speed of about 32 feet per second (taken to three decimal points, 32.174) after one second has passed. After two seconds it will be moving at a rate of 64 ft/sec, after three 96 ft/sec, and so on. Like weight, this steady gain in the velocity of falling bodies is caused by the pull of the earth's gravity. (Gravitational acceleration obeys different mathematical laws from those governing weight. The speed of falling bodies increases in direct proportion to time, and only as the square root of distance. But as the third image here illustrates, it has a direct mathematical relation to weight. Weight = mass x gravitational acceleration.)

These scientific ideas linger in Bloom's mind throughout the day. Weight's relativity seems to contribute to his phenomenological ways of thinking about it, most of which have to do with the feeling of being oppressed (weighed down). In Hades the narrative's account of men hoisting Paddy Dignam's coffin gives way, via a pun, to Bloom's subjective impressions: "The mutes shouldered the coffin and bore it in through the gates. So much dead weight. Felt heavier myself stepping out of that bath." In Lestrygonians he regards women's loss of weight post-partem as partly mental: "How flat they look all of a sudden after. Peaceful eyes. Weight off their mind." Nausicaa finds him thinking about women's feelings of weight once again, this time in relation to menstruation: "Devils they are when that’s coming on them. Dark devilish appearance. Molly often told me feel things a ton weight." In such cases weight is not something to measure; it is felt. In the book's most subjective chapter, Circe, Bella's hoof says to Bloom, "Smell my hot goathide. Feel my royal weight," and shortly later Bella herself commands, "Footstool! Feel my entire weight."

Bloom also thinks about bodies gaining speed as they fall. When he throws the "Elijah is coming" throwaway into the river in Lestrygonians, the downfall sounds more precipitous than any that a piece of paper would experience: "He threw down among them a crumpled paper ball. Elijah thirtytwo feet per sec is com." In this despondent chapter one may imagine that Bloom feels some gloomy identification with the discarded Jewish prophet. In Circe that impression is confirmed as he reenacts the plunge into the waters of the Liffey, standing on a cliff's edge on Howth Head: "(He gazes intently downwards on the water.) Thirtytwo head over heels per second. Press nightmare. Giddy Elijah. Fall from cliff. Sad end of government printer's clerk. (Through silversilent summer air the dummy of Bloom, rolled in a mummy, rolls rotatingly from the Lion's Head cliff into the purple waiting waters.)" But fantasy can also reverse the effects of gravity. At the end of Cyclops Bloom's victory over the Citizen is celebrated with a rocket-launch version of Elijah's ascension into heaven, "at an angle of fortyfive degrees...like a shot off a shovel."

These encounters with gravity are mere fantasies, but in Ithaca Bloom's body actually does fall through space. Finding that he has no key to his house, he climbs over the area railing, hangs suspended from the bars by his hands, and consents for "his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall." The narrative asks, "Did he fall?" and answers in the affirmative: "By his body’s known weight of eleven stone and four pounds in avoirdupois measure." "Did he rise uninjured by concussion?" Answer: "he rose uninjured though concussed by the impact."

"By his body's known weight" implies that his weight is somehow responsible for the speed of his fall. In a limited and inexact sense this is true, because a body would not fall if it did not have mass. But as the science lesson above should make clear, weight is the product of gravitation, not the cause, so no body will accelerate in proportion to its weight, and the difference in mass between a heavy human being and a light one is so relatively miniscule that it would have no measurable influence on its gravitational attraction to the earth. One of the milestones in the history of understanding gravitational acceleration came in 1604 when Galileo found that, counter-intuitively, objects of different weights will accelerate at exactly the same rate, providing friction is minimized. Bloom's body will not accelerate faster or slower than any other.

However, it will accelerate with every second of time elapsed and every foot of distance traveled. Evidence suggests that, depending on one's age and physical condition, the velocity needed to damage human limbs is achieved after a fall of about 20 feet. Joyce's narrative precisely specifies the harrowing distance that Bloom's fall will cover: "two feet ten inches."

JH 2022
  Graphic illustrating the relations between mass, distance, weight, and gravity. Source: vhmsscience.weebly.com.

  Graphic illustrating the dependence of a body's weight on the strength of gravity. Source: vhmsscience.weebly.com.

  Two equations, one showing gravitational force as a function of two objects with mass and the distance between them, the other showing weight as a function of an object's mass and gravitational accleration. Source: www.grc.nasa.gov.

  Photo from a medical article about reasons that one's head may feel heavy. Source: www.healthline.com.

  Source: markmanson.net.