By Duncan Steel 16/06/2019


The name of Michael Faraday is well-known in science, for his pioneering work in both chemistry and physics (in particular electricity and magnetism; hence the name of the SI unit of capacitance, the farad). As a postgraduate student at the University of Canterbury I spent many hours working on experimental radio receivers sat inside a large metallic box known as a Faraday cage,the function of which was the exclusion of extraneous radio signals.

Quite apart from his scientific discoveries, there is something else that has been passed down to me from Faraday. He was a renowned public speaker, and one of his cardinal rules for giving a lecture was this: Never begin a talk with an apology.

How true that imperative is. Many, many times I have sat in an audience and heard the speaker start by saying “I’m sorry, I’ve not had much time to prepare this presentation” or “Unfortunately I left the notes for this talk on the train.” The time-honoured beginning of “unaccustomed as I am to public speaking” may raise a little laugh, but the effect of that phrase, or similar apologetic statements, is to make the audience groan and go to sleep, because they figure they might as well do so.

So don’t do it. Be as confident as you can possibly be – actually, your audience is not hoping  that you will be a bumbling bore – and stride into your subject matter, assuming the three I’s: that your assembled group are Intelligent  (to whatever degree, that controlling the intellectual level of your presentation), are Interested  (if they’d rather be watching a replay of a rugby game there’s nothing much you can do), but also Ignorant.

That’s not intended as a pejorative term: myself, I am ignorant of almost all of human learning. When I walk into a library I know that I will remain forever unknowing of everything in at least 99.9 per cent of those myriad books on the shelves. If I attend a talk – even a university colloquium – about biochemistry or ancient history or whatever, I prefer the speaker to assume I know virtually nothing about the subject matter: so start at a low level, and maybe bring it up to research level as you proceed.

The preceding paragraphs are essentially diversionary, enabling me to follow Faraday’s dictum and not start with an apology, and yet now admit that I have never read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.

Cover of the first edition of the book (1922), which had previously been serialised.

Who has? Yes, lots of avid enthusiasts (and undergraduates studying Eng. Lit. and forced to do so) have run this literary multi-marathon (or should I say obstacle course?), but they are surely only a tiny fraction of all those who have begun it, and yet only managed to knock a few chips out of this erudite edifice. As the saying goes, a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read, but few actually want to read.

I have read it to the end, though. Well, I mean I read the end, the last page or so. I was motivated to do so by hearing Robert A. Johnson once speaking about it, in a radio recording; he may well have written about it in his book She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, though it is over thirty years since I read that slender volume, and my memory is unclear.

So, I have read the last page of Ulysses, in fact many times. It’s famous. It’s the culmination of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Just try googling “Molly’s soliloquy”. The problem (for me) is that there are several hundred earlier pages that I have yet to navigate. I did know, though, that Leopold Bloom (whose wife is the aforementioned Molly) is described by Joyce as being keen on astronomy, hence this blog post.

Marilyn Monroe reading Molly’s soliloquy.

A wonderful thing about the internet and modern computers (I write as someone who learned to program on IBM punch cards) is that one can peruse the pages and the tumble of words in Ulysses in a different way. An electronic copy can be downloaded courtesy Project Gutenberg, and then one can search for specific character strings.

Looking for ‘moon’, for example, turns up 80 occurrences, and although many of those are concerned with Mooney’s pub, or moonlight, or the tide being moondrawn (demonstrating Joyce’s knowledge of the physical world), there are quite a few that are pertinent here, pertaining to Bloom’s astronomical bent. About a third of the way into the novel we learn of Poldy’s (Leopold’s) fascination with the subject:

He’s dead nuts on sales, M’Coy said. I was with him one day and he bought a book from an old one in Liffey street for two bob. There were fine plates in it worth double the money, the stars and the moon and comets with long tails. Astronomy it was about.

Entering ‘comet’ as search string, one similarly finds nine appearances of that run of letters: four “comets”, one “cometary orbit”, two occurrences of “cometh”,  and eventually the intriguing word “cometobed” plus “She put the comether [i.e. come hither] on him, sweet and twentysix.”

The sexual connotation of those last two words containing, by chance, the sequence ‘comet’ bring to mind something else, which I have not seen discussed in the many studies of the astronomical allusions in Ulysses (though this might be a case of mea culpa). Various authors have noted that Leopold is depicted as being preoccupied with women’s hair, almost to the same extent as he is obsessed by their underwear (certainly it is not a new observation that Bloom is the first five letters of ‘bloomers’). However, I mention that the word comet is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning ‘long-haired’ (i.e. a comet appears as a long-haired star, the tail looking like lengthy tresses). Perhaps that is what attracted the younger Poldy to astronomy.

Joyce does not appear ignorant of the etymology of the word comet. He writes of “hirsute comets” and so one could accuse him of tautology, though that might be the least of the multifarious charges laid against the book over the years.

Above I mentioned that many of the appearances of the string ‘moon’ in Ulysses have meanings that are pertinent to astronomy. I might also point out that there is at least one place in which the word is used rather impertinently. Consider the following text:

Under what guidance, following what signs?

At sea, septentrional [of the north], by night the pole star [i.e. Polaris, the North Star], located at the point of intersection of the right line from beta to alpha [within constellations stars are labelled with Greek letters in order of brightness] in Ursa Major produced and divided externally at omega and the hypotenuse of the right-angled triangle formed by the line alpha-omega so produced and the line alpha-delta of Ursa Major. On land, meridional [here, of the south; that is, the lower part of the human body], a bi-spherical moon [i.e. the buttocks], revealed in imperfect varying phases of lunation [the changing phases of the Moon across a synodic month; elsewhere Joyce writes of the near-coincidence with the human oestrus cycle] through the posterior interstice of the imperfectly occluded skirt of a carnose [fleshy] negligent perambulating female, a pillar of the cloud by day.

The term ‘mooning’ for exposing the buttocks has been in use for a surprising length of time (rather than being a modern development), and Joyce would certainly have known of it. Of course in New Zealand the gesture of whakapohane as a sign of contempt or disapproval is well-known.

Shortly thereafter, in the same section of the narrative:

Would the departed never nowhere nohow reappear?

Ever he would wander, selfcompelled, to the extreme limit of his cometary orbit, beyond the fixed stars and variable suns and telescopic planets, astronomical waifs and strays, to the extreme boundary of space, passing from land to land, among peoples, amid events. Somewhere imperceptibly he would hear and somehow reluctantly, suncompelled, obey the summons of recall. Whence, disappearing from the constellation of the Northern Crown he would somehow reappear reborn above delta in the constellation of Cassiopeia [the significance of the star Delta Cassiopeiae is discussed later in this blog post] and after incalculable eons of peregrination return an estranged avenger, a wreaker of justice on malefactors…

Joyce knows his celestial mechanics, describing rather well the travel of a long-period comet out beyond the domain of the planets (remember that he was writing in the 1910s, when we knew far less of the cosmos than we know now), though he did slip up occasionally on the physics:

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.

As a matter of fact, the absolute zero of the Centigrade/Celsius scale is -273.15°C; that on the Fahrenheit scale is -459.67°F. There is no lower temperature. Joyce got it wrong. (On the other hand, I had never previously heard of the Réaumur scale, so thanks JJ!)

But the text continues…

What prospect of what phenomena inclined him to remain?

The disparition [i.e. disappearance] of three final stars, the diffusion of daybreak, the apparition of a new solar disk.

Here and elsewhere Joyce displays his knowledge of calendar matters. Leopold Bloom, we are told, had a Jewish father, born in Hungary, who converted to Christianity (as a Protestant) on emigrating to Ireland, and married an Irish Protestant woman. Leopold converts to Catholicism in order to marry Marion (Molly) Tweedy. But we know he has a part-Jewish background.

Rather than the day beginning and ending at midnight in the way to which most of us are habituated, Judaic days begin at nightfall. The problem here is how to define nightfall, or dusk. Take into account that in the secular world there are three quite distinct definitions of ‘dusk’: civil, nautical, or astronomical. As I have recently discussed, religions do not necessarily follow strict scientific definitions. Essentially, a new day is taken to start in the Jewish tradition when three stars are visible in the sky, though some flexibility is inevitable.

In the last-quoted text, then, it seems that Joyce is suggesting that, for someone who is part-Jewish, like Bloom, night ends when the last three stars blink out with the rising dawn. I have no idea whether that is a valid concept, but it seems worthwhile to point it out. I doubt whether the “three final stars” is a random phrase; as Joyce wrote elsewhere in Ulysses, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

Why Ulysses as a title? Ulysses is the Latinized version of the name of the Greek god Odysseus, king of Ithaca and hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey. Therein Odysseus/Ulysses is called away to fight in the ten-year Trojan war, and the poem tells of his trials and his subsequent decade-long journey back home after the fall of Troy. There are parallels between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses which I have neither the space nor the intellectual capability to describe or debate here.

Ulysses is split into 18 episodes; chapters, if you prefer. Each has a title. Episode 18, entitled Penelope and concluding with Molly’s soliloquy, goes on for page after page, but contains only eight sentences. The Greek goddess Penelope was the wife of Odysseus. During the twenty years her husband is absent she refuses the many suitors who try to seduce her, despite the general assumption that Odysseus must be dead. Her name is therefore proverbial in terms of marital fidelity. In Joyce’s novel, Molly Bloom displays no such faithfulness, hence the title of the final episode, Molly having been essentially silent throughout the preceding narrative of the book.

The reader (of this blog post) might now be wondering what this has to do with astronomy, but please bear with me, there is method in my madness.

Much of the astronomy (and other scientifically-oriented text) appears in the penultimate Episode 17, which carries the title Ithaca. As aforementioned, Odysseus (Ulysses) was the king of Ithaca, which is a small island off the western coast of modern-day Greece, close to Cephalonia and near the Gulf of Patras. I will come to the astronomy/science in a little while, but first I point out a peculiarity from long after Joyce’s era.

Just as Leopold is the equivalent of Odysseus in the novel, and Molly the parallel to Penelope, both of them showing behaviour that strongly deviates from those archetypes, so there is a central character named Stephen Dedalus who is based on Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. Dedalus is the alter ego of Joyce, with a surname that in earlier writings by Joyce was spelled Daedalus, in Greek mythology the designer of the labyrinth of king Minos on the island of Crete.

For those with shaky geographical knowledge, I point out that Crete lies south of modern Greece, far (by about 400 km) from Ithaca to the west. I will get back to Ithaca later.

To preserve the secret of the labyrinth, Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus. They hatch a plan to escape, flying away from a tower using wings made from feathers held together using wax. Daedalus tells his son not to fly too high, lest the heat of the Sun should melt the wax (thus demonstrating a lack of understanding that generally the temperature goes down as you proceed upwards through the troposphere). Of course the youthful aeronaut cannot resist soaring upwards, the wax softens on his wings, and Icarus plunges into the sea and drowns as the feathers flutter down.

Daedalus, naturally, is terribly upset, but flies on westwards to Sicily. (The Greeks had colonies there, and most people imagine that when Archimedes jumped out of his bath and ran through the streets shouting Eureka! he was doing so in Athens; actually, he lived in Syracuse, on the Sicilian southeastern coast.)

Now an astronomical aside. The fourth Earth-crossing asteroid to be discovered, spotted in 1949, was (1566) Icarus. It was given that name because it flies so close to the Sun, its perihelion being well within the orbit of Mercury.

In a previous blog post I wrote about how British astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington voyaged to a tiny island off the coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea in order to photograph the total solar eclipse of 29th May 1919, his measurements of how the apparent positions of background stars were shifted by the solar gravitational field demonstrating that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity appears to be correct, with Newton’s gravitational theory being deficient.

The following year Eddington addressed the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Cardiff in August, and argued for the role of the adventurous rather than conservative thinker in the progress of science. He said:

“In ancient days two aviators procured to themselves wings. Daedalus flew safely through the middle air and was duly honoured on his landing. Icarus soared upwards to the sun till the wax melted which bound his wings and his flight ended in fiasco. The classical authorities tell us, of course, that he was only doing a stunt; but I prefer to think of him as the man who brought to light a serious constructional defect in the flying-machines of his day. So, too, in science. Cautious Daedalus will apply his theories where he feels confident they will safely go; but by his excess of caution their hidden weaknesses remain undiscovered. Icarus will strain his theories to the breaking-point till the weak joints gape. For the mere adventure? Perhaps partly, this is human nature. But if he is destined not yet to reach the sun and solve finally the riddle of its construction, we may at least hope to learn from his journey some hints to build a better machine.”

In 1962 a new research journal specialising in planetary science/solar system studies was founded, and given the name Icarus. Each issue carries on its frontispiece the above quote from Eddington.

The initial editor of Icarus was Zdeněk Kopal, a Czech astronomer who was Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Manchester. He served in that role for six or seven years, and many years later (in 1983) I recall him presenting a seminar at the University of Canterbury whilst on a post-retirement tour of New Zealand.

In 1968 Carl Sagan was denied tenure by Harvard University, largely because he was an Icarus rather than a Daedalus (in the sense of Eddington’s speech). Sagan shifted to Cornell University, and took over the editorship of the journal Icarus. He served in that position for more than a decade, eventually handing over to Joseph Burns of the same institution, who carried the publication forward for 18 years (including handling some of my own papers, and me acting as a referee for various other submissions). Then Phil Nicholson, originally Australian and another professor at Cornell, was Icarus editor for two decades, until last year when Rosaly Lopes took over the reins, working from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

For fifty years (1968-2018) Icarus was edited by Cornell University staff, then, their address appearing prominently. And where is Cornell? It’s in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In fact it’s located in a small city named Ithaca.

I recognise that people often say I am too discursive in my stories, but I thought it might be worthwhile to explain that, long after Joyce’s death in 1941, an astronomical connection could be drawn between Stephen Dedalus, Episode 17 in Ulysses, and the home of Odysseus/Ulysses in mythology.

To Episode 17 (Ithaca) then, and its scientific conundrums.

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

This is one of those paragraphs to which the only sensible reaction is to say “I don’t know where to start” (in explaining or querying what is intended). There are words that seem to be outside of any dictionary. (Lattiginous? Not litigious, methinks, but related to milk in some way, as coffee fans will attest.)

Leaving matters of language aside, there are all sorts of potentially interesting astronomical concepts herein. The idea of being at the bottom of a vertical shaft (say, a deep well) and being able to see the stars in daytime has been around for a long time: cutting out the bright sky enables the eye to adjust, and perhaps see stars as they transit the tiny aperture seen above, but in any case Venus can be seen in daytime, so long as you know where to look. Our knowledge of the Dog Star, Sirius, is much-improved since Joyce put down his figures. But most of his ideas here are valid: he knows about what he writes.

Over the decades many have written about Joyce’s astronomy. Here is one paper, from 1965, by Littmann and Schweighauser from the James Joyce Quarterly: Astronomical Allusions, Their Meaning and Purpose, in “Ulysses”. I will leave it to anyone sufficiently interested to pore over that essay, and perhaps tease out from the literature the other treatments and analyses that have appeared more recently.

A map of the constellation Cassiopeia, as shown in the header above this blog post. The significance of Cassiopeia in Ulysses will be discussed below.

It is not only astronomy that Joyce ponders. He continues:

Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?

Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

Again, with the benefit of newer knowledge, can one find fault? Well, even using the now-generally-accepted definition of a billion (i.e. a thousand-million, not a million-million), in fact the “trillions of billions of millions” of molecules are calculable. That number, by my reckoning, is ten-to-the-power-27. If each molecule were just a hydrogen atom – the lowest-mass feasible – then that number of such molecules has a mass of more than a kilogram. You can’t get a kilogram onto a pinhead (especially with all the angels dancing there). Sorry, Mr Joyce, for taking you too literally, and performing the reductio ad absurdum.

The final part of that longer paragraph quoted above looks familiar, does it not? It’s one of Zeno’s paradoxes, the story of Achilles and the Tortoise. You may have come across it (again and again) in Douglas Hoffstader’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

And on we go, in Episode 17.

Why did he not elaborate these calculations to a more precise result?

Because some years previously in 1886 when occupied with the problem of the quadrature of the circle [finding a rational value for π, an impossible quest] he had learned of the existence of a number computed to a relative degree of accuracy to be of such magnitude and of so many places, e.g., the 9th power of the 9th power of 9, that, the result having been obtained, 33 closely printed volumes of 1000 pages each of innumerable quires and reams of India paper would have to be requisitioned in order to contain the complete tale of its printed integers of units, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions, the nucleus of the nebula of every digit of every series containing succinctly the potentiality of being raised to the utmost kinetic elaboration of any power of any of its powers.

What is the 9th power of the 9th power of 9? I can take the logarithm (to base 10) of 9, and multiply it by 9, and then take the anti-logarithm so as to derive 387,420,489. But if I now again take the logarithm of 9, and multiply it by that previous result, my calculator can manage that step but fails on the next bit, the process of taking the anti-logarithm of 369,693,099.6.

How else might one address the problem, equipped only with a simple (indeed 30-year-old) hand calculator? Well, let’s go above and below 9.

The 10th power of the 10th power of 10 is just 10 raised to the power 10 billion.

The 8th power of the 8th power of 8 can be attacked by noting that 8 is 2 raised to the power 3, so you can take the logarithm to the base 2, triple it, multiply that result by 8, and then take the inverse logarithm. And then repeat the process to get… a very large number again.

Cutting to the chase, the point is this. Joyce’s absurdly-large number hinging on 9 is somewhere in-between the results for 8 and 10. On the other hand the total number of atoms in the universe is reckoned to be something like 10 raised to the power 80. Some estimates say a hundred times less, others say a hundred times more. Whatever the reality, the available number of atoms is far smaller than Joyce’s 9th power of the 9th power of 9. There cannot be enough paper on which to print his result. Anywhere.

And so it goes, on and on. Leaping some text, we come to a subject that recurs several times in Ulysses, and was mentioned previously:

…the appearance of a star (1st magnitude) of exceeding brilliancy dominating by night and day (a new luminous sun generated by the collision and amalgamation in incandescence of two nonluminous exsuns) about the period of the birth of William Shakespeare over delta in the recumbent neversetting constellation of Cassiopeia… 

In Episode 9, Stephen Dedalus had associated Tycho’s supernova of 1572 with the birth of Shakespeare, and in the full passage from which a mere fragment is quoted above there is talk of other supernovae (or novae, at least) occurring at the times of birth of characters in Ulysses. This is literary license, in that those characters are fictional. But Shakespeare is not. In fact he was born in 1564, eight years before the stellar explosion we associate with Tycho Brahe’s name.

Joyce appears prescient, however. How could he have known, a century ago, that Tycho’s supernova was the result of one star accreting mass from another, as he essentially states within parentheses above?

A recently-derived composite image showing the remnant nebula produced by Tycho’s supernova of 1572. Intensities obtained using NASA’s Chandra X-Ray satellite are coded in blue and green, while data from NASA’s Spitzer Infra-Red satellite are shown in red. Also used here are photographs from the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain, showing background stars as being mostly white. This image has a width about half the apparent diameter of the Sun or the Moon in the sky. Similar images collected over the past two decades can be stacked together to form a movie showing the expansion of the nebula from year to year.

And Cassiopeia itself (or herself): the constellation is named for the mythical queen of a North African nation called Aethiopia (not to be confused with today’s Ethiopia). It is indeed circumpolar from northern latitudes, and so “neversetting”. The queen is indeed “recumbent” in the usual depiction (see below) of the constellation, the familiar W shape as shown in the header to this post. We could also allow Joyce that Tycho’s supernova was “over” Cassiopeia in that it was near the northern limits of the constellation. But why over delta, given that Delta Cassiopeiae (or Ruchbah) is in the southern part of the constellation, one of the dips in the W?

The answer lies, it seems, with Stephen Dedalus. The ‘Delta’ represents his second initial. And as the seasons pass, the apparent orientation of the constellation in the sky changes. When rotated by about 90 degrees, the big W instead becomes a capital letter sigma, the Greek equivalent of an S, for Stephen. One could equally well say that whilst recumbent Cassiopeia looks like a W for William, and when vertical resembles a sigma, for Shakespeare – and that’s the point, apparently.

The recumbent Cassiopeia by Johannes Hevelius from his star atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia which was published in 1690, after his death three years earlier.

There is much more that might be written here. There is much more that has been written, elsewhere. But enough, given that it is well past midnight and Bloomsday has already begun, New Zealand time.

I am not sure how I might best end this post, so let me offer this, given that various themes in Ulysses revolve around people’s names, as we have seen.

In real life James Joyce’s wife began her days as Nora Barnacle. To make a terrible pun, her initials are well-worthy of note (NB). It was Joyce’s first romantic meeting with Nora that defined the date on which Ulysses is set, and therefore Bloomsday.

I think that Nora Barnacle is a wonderful name. If someone writing a novel invented it, I would not be able to take it seriously, and as an editor I would insist on a change. Nora Barnacle? For real?

And I have some personal experience of unlikely names. Many people do not believe my own. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, it has a not-so-hidden sexual connotation that I did not recognise myself until it was pointed out to me. At my age perhaps it is inappropriate (hand me the wonder pills). It all hinges on the way that Americans tend to pronounce ‘Duncan’. Then again, my brother is named Russell, so in the U.S. he is Rusty Steel. I prefer my own moniker. Much more vigorous.

A vertical Cassiopeia, from Urania’s Mirror; or, a view of the Heavens (1824).