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The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind Its Lost Secrets Paperback – January 30, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The oracle at Delphi influenced politicians and slaves with her prophecies, yet her life and practices are shrouded in mystery. In a fascinating story that is part detective tale and part science report, Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times writer Broad unveils the oracle. In order to prepare for her encounter with Apollo, the oracle descended into a chasm near the temple, where she would breathe the holy pneuma. She would then deliver her prophecies in a trance, sometimes foaming at the mouth and sometimes in a frenzy. When the temple was unearthed in the 19th century, archeologists and geologists searched for the mysterious chasm. Broad traces the history of these efforts and the conflicts they produced. By the mid–20th century, many scientists argued that the chasm never existed. He follows two modern-day Indiana Joneses, geologist Jelle de Boer and archeologist John Hale, as they refute those conclusions by uncovering the chasm and the geological faults that produced hallucinogenic vapors. Broad's lively prose and fast-paced storytelling conduct us on a breathless adventure of religious mystery and scientific discovery—and ends with a surprising consideration of the meaning of the oracle's powers and the existence of "shadowy worlds... beyond the ken" of science. B&w illus. (Feb. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

The Oracle of Delphi, human mistress of the god Apollo, had the power to communicate his prophecies and advice. Accounts from the time describe how she breathed in vapors rising from the temple floor before communing with the god. But modern scholars have long discounted these reports. Broad, a writer at the New York Times, tells the story of scientists who worked from subtle clues scattered through the ancient literature and the landforms near Delphi to uncover evidence that explains the oracle's powers. They discovered that the vapors actually existed--they were petrochemical fumes that contained a hallucinogenic gas, which rose through cracks in the earth into the oracle's chamber. A fascinating account in its own right, the story also allows Broad to weave in the modern debate between science and religion.

Editors of Scientific American --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143038591
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143038597
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #143,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William J. Broad is a best-selling author and a senior writer at The New York Times. In more than thirty years as a science journalist, he has written hundreds of front-page articles and won every major journalistic award in print and film. His reporting shows unusual depth and breadth - everything from exploding stars and the secret life of marine mammals to the spread of nuclear arms and why the Titanic sank so fast. The Best American Science Writing, a yearly anthology, has twice featured his work.

He joined The Times in 1983 and before that worked in Washington for Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Broad has won two Pulitzer Prizes with Times colleagues, as well as an Emmy and a DuPont. He won the Pulitzers for coverage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the feasibility of antimissile arms. In 2002, he won the Emmy (PBS Nova) for a documentary that detailed the threat of germ terrorism. He was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005 for articles written with Times colleague David E. Sanger on nuclear proliferation. In 2007, he shared a DuPont Award (The Discovery Channel) from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for the television documentary, "Nuclear Jihad: Can Terrorists Get the Bomb?"

Broad is the author or co-author of eight books, most recently The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (Simon & Schuster, 2012), a New York Times bestseller. His books have been translated into dozens of languages. His other titles include Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War (Simon & Schuster, 2001), a number-one New York Times bestseller; The Universe Below: Discovering the Secrets of the Deep Sea (Simon & Schuster, 1997); Teller's War: The Top-Secret Story Behind the Star Wars Deception (Simon & Schuster, 1992); and Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science (Simon & Schuster, 1982).

Broad's reporting has taken him to Paris and Vienna, Brazil and Ecuador, Kiev and Kazakhstan. In December 1991, he was among the last Westerners to see the Soviet hammer and sickle flying over the Kremlin.

Broad's media appearances include Larry King Live, The Charlie Rose Show, The Discovery Channel, Nova, The History Channel, and National Public Radio. His speaking engagements have ranged from the U.S. Navy in Washington, to the Knickerbocker Club in New York, to the Monterey Aquarium in California. He has also given talks at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City.

Broad earned a masters degree in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has three adult children and lives with his wife in the New York metropolitan area.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

52 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on February 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I had no idea there was any scientific basis for believing in the existence of a Delphi oracle until I picked up a review copy of William Broad's real life thrilled THE ORACLE. In highly serviceable prose, Broad does two things at once: he sketches in a history of Greece both ancient and modern, and also he brings up up to date on recent scholarship and archaelogical findings concerning this holy (?) site.

It is said that when Apollo visited the inner chambers of Delphi that visitors nearby would sense the lingering aromas of his distinctive, unearthly perfume! It is this sort of memorable detail that makes Broad's writing so delightful. It almost had me believing in gods, a feeling I haven't had since I was small watching Harry Hamlin and Lawrence Olivier duke it out in Harryhausen's CLASH OF THE TITANS. I eat this stuff up, but as I say, this book makes the stone carved figures of Mount Olympus come alive in a very real way. They might almost be flesh and blood.

Broad also excels at explaining how politics have obscured and occluded the progress of scientific analysis at least since the romantic age of Byron and Shelley. When the West became involved in Grecian affairs, it was almost always with the idea of empire in mind, thus for example the Elgin Marbles being carted off to London like so many trophies of war. But on the other hand some serious scholars with admittedly sketchy and unrpoven theories about the rise and fall of the Oracle were on the brink of a major discovery, if only they could surmount the bureaucracy of the stubborn French controllers of research.

Jelle De Boer (I know, what a name!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By George Poirier on March 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book has it all: ancient history, archaeology, science, mystery, intrigue and adventure. As is implied by the title, the book's focus is on the Oracle of Delphi, as seen from both ancient and modern perspectives. The main theme centers on whether the ancient Oracle was exposed to hallucinogenic gases while providing prophetic council, or whether all this was, perhaps, just an act. The author does a wonderful job in weaving the history of the Oracle, its excavation of about a century ago, recent investigations and the lives of the individual scientists forming part of the multidisciplinary team performing the work. Written in a most engaging style, this book is difficult to put down. On the odd side, two sections of the book stand out as being rather different from the rest of it; these are (part of) the prologue and the entire last chapter. These contain discussions on such topics as metaphysical philosophy and the uses and misuses of reductionism in science - topics which, although possibly related to the apparent clairvoyance of the Oracle, contrast sharply with the meticulous fact gathering and the careful well-grounded science presented in the main body of the book. This can be a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view. Either way, this book is a clear winner that is likely to be of interest to just about everyone.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Hubert Herring on April 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
When I heard about this book, the topic -- an exploration of whether the Oracle of Delphi got high from gases bubbling up from underground faults -- immediately intrigued me. And since it was written by William Broad, a top New York Times science writer, I knew it would be well done. But I did not fully expect such a fascinating tale -- and such beautiful writing. There was just enough history of the oracle to make clear her huge role in Greek history (on a word from one of a series of female oracles, spanning centuries, wars were fought, or not fought) and thus make clear why we should care -- but not too much history. There was just enough science -- but not too much to scare off the layman. And the two-decade detective story -- in which a determined geologist and an archeologist follow clues about the source of the oracle's behavior, and perhaps her powers -- is told with a lively, compelling sense of drama. (Who ever thought a book on geology could be a page-turner?) And for the third act, Mr. Broad took the substantial risk of having it seem, to the casual reader, that the whole pursuit was meaningless in the end -- but then weathered that risk with a fascinating and thought-provoking take on the role, and limits, of science.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By William E. Adams on March 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
What a great book! In 300 pages, requiring thoughtful reading, William Broad covers a great deal of data in the following fields: the history of Greek civilization, religion and philosophy; plate tectonics and volcanism; psychic phenomena;archeology;inhaled gases as intoxicants;rivalries between branches of the sciences and disputes among the philosophers of science. I have a casual interest in all the above, so the volume was fascinating for me. All I really knew about the famous Oracle of Delphi was that it was a place where female psychics gave advice. I did not know that the Oracle was in existence for 12 centuries, including the first three after the birth of Christ. I did not know how it came into existence, and why it disappeared, or how it worked, or the kinds of advice dispensed. Neither did I know who rediscovered the shrine and when, and how those archaeologists failed to confirm an essential historical claim for the Oracle, and were proven to be in error about that a century later. If any of these trains of thought entice you to take this journey, go get this book.
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