05 October 2009

The Oracle

I ran across The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets by William Broad when one of my managers merchandised it on an "Angels and Demons" display we had around the time of the movie release. The Oracle doesn't have anything to do with Dan Brown, or the Illuminati, or conspiracies, but in the grand scheme of things is does have to do with mysticism. Mysticism is sort of tangential to the Brown oeuvre, particularly with the then-upcoming release of The Lost Symbol (and we'd run out of places to put new paperbacks for display). Broad is a good science writer, so I thought I would give this one a whirl.

The Oracle turned out to be a very readable, highly informative examination of both the Delphic Oracle in history and the scientists involved in her twentieth-century fall and resurrection. The Oracle at Delphi featured heavily in Greek drama and history, even when the Oracle's prediction turned out to be ambiguous (see Croesus for an example of hearing only what you want to hear). Broad opens the book with a summary of ancient writings cataloging the Oracle's divine power; this was interesting because I'd really only heard of the Oracle in Herodotus and Oedipus Rex.

The "science" part of the book comes into play after the Oracle and her history has been discredited by French archaeologists; excavations at Delphi in the 1890s, published in 1904, find no source for the mysterious "pneuma" that would have aided the Oracle's communication with Apollo. Geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer developed an interest in Delphi after mapping fault-lines in Greece for an energy project; he enlisted naval archaeologist John R. Hale (schooled in the French discovery of "no pneuma") and the two began to investigate the Pythia using scientific tools not available during the French excavation. de Boer mapped criss-crossing fault-lines under the Pythia's adyton in Apollo's temple and noted the limestone was of a type that could contain hydrocarbons, important for a source of ethylene; eventually de Boer and Hale brought in forensic chemist Jeffrey P. Chanton and toxicologist Henry R. Spille to analyze the contents and effects of hydrocarbon deposits found at Delphi and similar sites in Greece.

What I love about this book is how the tools of science (geology, tectonics, gas chromatography, physiology) are used to support observations made when such tools weren't even thought of as possible. When the principles behind those tools weren't even thought of as probable. Broad makes this book of history very enjoyable and makes the mystery of the Oracle accessible to everyone.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge: 2/2

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