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The Overnight Temperature in "Ithaca"

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 558-560 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0017

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"Ithaca" contains several noteworthy errors concerning temperature that appear to have escaped attention, the most interesting of which resolves a minor Ulyssean crux. At least two of the errors occur in a single sentence. "Alone, what did Bloom feel? The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Réaumur: the incipient intimations of proximate dawn" (U 17.1245-48).

As Joyce must have known, temperatures cannot be even one degree lower than absolute zero, much less "thousands"—or, for that matter, thousands of degrees below freezing point on any of the scales referred to. Of the three, Fahrenheit inserts the greatest number of degrees between freezing point and absolute zero but still only allows temperature to fall a few hundred degrees—491.67, to be precise— below freezing point. These errors would appear to be Bloom's.

Nor does absolute zero belong to any of the thermometric scales Joyce mentions, as the sentence seems to imply. Absolute zero is a physical state independent of the scale on which it is measured; it belongs to the Fahrenheit, Centigrade, and Réaumur scales no more (or less) than the South Pole belongs to Gerardus Mercator's map projection. "The cold of interstellar space," moreover, is (we now know) a few degrees above absolute zero. Joyce could not have known this; it was predicted theoretically only in 1948 and confirmed by observation as late as 1965.

Ironically, however, the one temperature-related point in "Ithaca" that has been publicly corrected turns out not to be an error at all. When Bloom boils the water for his and Stephen's cocoa, Joyce describes the heat of the fire as "gradually raising the temperature of the water from normal to boiling point, a rise in temperature expressible as the result of an expenditure of 72 thermal units needed to raise 1 pound of water from 50° to 212° Fahrenheit" (U 17.268–71). As various commentators have pointed out—Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman, for example—the quantity of heat "needed to raise 1 pound of water from 50fl to 212fl Fahrenheit" is 162 British thermal units, not 72. But Joyce did not specify British thermal units, nor are these the only thermal units available. On the Centigrade scale, the water's initial temperature must have been exactly 10°C; the boiling point of water on this scale being 100°C, the water's temperature rose by 90°C. On the Réaumur scale, the water's initial temperature converts to exactly 8°R, and on this scale the boiling point is 80°R. On the Réaumur scale, then, the water did rise in temperature by 72 degrees.

It might be objected that applying Réaumur degrees to a pound of water is to mix one's systems of units—but this is obviously what Joyce himself has done. And such "mixed" units have been used in practice—in Centigrade thermal units, for instance, one of which measures the heat required to raise a pound of water by one degree Centigrade. Joyce's "thermal units," then, are what might be termed Réaumur thermal units: the amount of heat required to raise pounds of water by degrees Réaumur.

A question remains as to the reason for the puzzle. My own belief is that Joyce's intention here was to conceal a pair of Mollyian 8s in the kitchen at 7 Eccles Street—the water rose from 8 to 80 on the Réaumur scale—while leaving, in the apparent arithmetical discrepancy, a clue to their discovery.

Peter Hayes is an Australian lawyer living in Melbourne. He has degrees in science, arts, and law from the University of Melbourne and is an occasional freelance writer on Australian literature, annotator of twentieth-century authors, and student of the Wake.


1. See Ralph A. Alpher and Robert C. Herman, "Remarks on the Evolution of the Expanding Universe," Physical Review, 75 (April 1949), 1089–95.

2. A. A. Penzias and R. W. Wilson, "A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s," Astrophysical Journal, 142 (July 1965), 419–21.

3. Don Gifford, with...

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