the Oracle & the Ethylene


The Oracle at Delphi was one of the most influential persons of the ancient world. Her prophecies, proclaimed from a vapor induced trance state, would guide the actions of the rich and the poor alike. Today the most likely culprit for this frenzy was the organic compound Ethylene, the same gas that ripens fruits & vegetables.

The Oracle

The Oracle at Delphi operated from around 800 BC to around 400 BC. The oracle was actually more than one woman, but was only one woman at a time. She was the chief priestess at the temple of Apollo in the Greek city of Delphi. The oracle at Delphi’s more specific title was that of Pythia after the Greek word for “to rot” named for the smell of the enormous rotting python that Apollo supposedly slayed on the site where the temple was later built.

Nine times a year the Pythia would descend into the lower level of the temple and enter a chamber called the Adyton. The Adyton was generally off-limits, which is also why adyton means “inaccessible / forbidden” in Greek, but was open to the Pythia and her supplicants seeking wisdom during times of prophecy. She would sit atop a tripod, over a fissure in the ground releasing sweet perfume like vapors, and serve as the shamanistic mouthpiece for Apollo. People seeking guidance would draw lots to determine line order but for larger sacrifices (i.e. paying more money) you moved towards the front of the line.

You had the opportunity to ask the Pythia one question, she would give an answer, and then you left. Unless more gold was offered up, there was no follow up question – which would have been useful as the Pythia’s answers are legendary for their cryptic and carefully phrased dual nature. Many answers could be interpreted in very different ways, leading some to their downfall. In 550 BC while considering an attack on the Persian empire the king of Lydia, Croesus, consulted the Oracle. She told him that “If you attack you will destroy a great kingdom.” He took this as the go-ahead to attack. Unfortunately the kingdom she was referring to was his own. He suffered a massive defeat and Persia conquered his lands.


One of the most important components of the Oracle at Delphi’s process is that she entered into a shamanistic like trance induced by the vapors from the crack in the floor of the adyton. Other temples to Apollo around the ancient world also chose to position their adytons over some form of  bubbling water or crack in the ground releasing gases. Interestingly Delphi sits at the cross-section of two tectonic fault lines. In 373 BC a massive earthquake hit the area and it has been theorized that the release of fumes into the adyton may have ended around then as the plates shifted, directing the gases elsewhere. So what were the fumes?

The best theory, from study of the rock and soil, has been that ethylene was the source of the Pythia’s shamanistic haze. Ethylene is an invisible, flammable, sweet smelling hydrocarbon (meaning it composed entirely of Hydrogen & Carbon). Exposure to ethylene starts with a slight sense of euphoria & dizziness but increases to confusion, combativeness, and the flailing of limbs. Much later it was used as an anesthetic in the 20th century until it was replaced, partially because of it’s smell and it’s explosive nature.

Ethylene is also produced by many ripening fruits & vegetables (such as apples, bananas, avocados, mangoes, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, etc). If you want to slow the ripening process you should separate your vegetables and keep them in open air. Keeping fruits and vegetables close to themselves speeds up the ripening process and shorten their shelf lives. In fact, many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are ripe so they will withstand the stress of transportation. They are then gassed with ethylene to artificially restart the ripening process when they are ready to be sold.

So for hundreds of years the Oracle at Delphi was being exposed to the same gas that ripens fruits and vegetables, and later anesthetized patients in hospitals, sending her into a drug-induced stupor from which she spoke for Apollo and changed the course of history,

From Tonight, Tonight to SpongeBob

Tonight, Tonight to SpongeBob

The Smashing Pumpkins video for Tonight, Tonight was an homage to the work of Georges Méliès and included the future voice of SpongeBob Square Pants.

Le Voyage

In 1995 the Smashing Pumpkins released their critically acclaimed third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album. One of the hit singles from the album was the song Tonight, Tonight.

The video for Tonight, Tonight featured an early 20th century couple and their fantastical, whimsical, steampunk adventure of traveling to the moon & back. The highly-stylized video is an homage to the work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, specifically his most famous film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), made in 1902. Méliès was inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and created a movie that is considered one of the first science fiction films. The special effects, quaint by today’s standards, captivated audiences of the early 1900s. Nothing else like it had ever been seen. Méliès used his background as a magician and of the theatrical stage to create elaborate sets and special effects. The film turned out to be so popular that it had the ignominious distinction of being widely pirated after its release, including by Thomas Edison.


The directors of Tonight, Tonight, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, worked in several direct references to A Trip to the Moon including an additional nod to Méliès by naming the ship at the end of the video the S.S. Méliès. The man and woman at the heart of the adventure were played by real-life husband and wife Tom Kenny and Jill Talley.  Around the same time as the video Kenny & Talley started work on the early ’90s HBO sketch comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David, some episodes of which were directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Several years after Tonight, Tonight and Mr. Show, Tom Kenny found his most famous role: the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.

The Tonight, Tonight video was a special intersection in the careers of many talented people. James Iha, guitarist for the Smashing Pumpkins, said that it was the only video of theirs that turned out exactly as it was written. Billy Corgan has said “… you knew it was something special because the moment it was on TV everybody, and I mean everybody, on the street that you would meet wanted to talk about it. It was just one of those videos, for some reason, that connected with everybody.”

Behind the Auroras

Behind the Auroras

The Aurora Borealis & Aurora Australis are both beautiful light shows as well as visual signs that the Earth’s magnetosphere is still protecting us from a constant barrage of destructive particles from the Sun.

The lights

In mythology & folklore the Northern Lights have been seen as both good and ill omens. This tended to depend on your degree of latitude which dictated how frequently you saw them. Tribes more accustomed to the lights such as those of northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland saw the lights as the energies of the departed and worthy of respect. Similarly, different tribes of Alaska saw the lights as dancing spirits of humans or animals.  Further south in ancient Rome, where the lights were seen less frequently, they were seen as a harbinger of war or famine.

Scientifically, the aurora are the result of charged particles from the sun (protons & electrons) interacting with oxygen & nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere. The different colors are the result of which gases the particles encounter at which altitudes. The most common color is yellow-green which is the sun’s particles interacting with oxygen at around 60 miles above the Earth. Nitrogen produces blue light below 60 miles in altitude but produces purple light above that. Red is also produced by oxygen but at altitudes above 150 miles. The light produced in these exchanges lasts only a second or less but the steady stream of particles from the sun can create long lasting light shows.

Special Delivery

The sun is constantly emitting these charged particles. The solar wind regularly delivers a steady stream of particles to Earth but they are also unleashed in larger more powerful bursts through solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). When any of these charged particles approach Earth their path is directed by the Earth’s magnetosphere which is essentially a magnetic force-field generated by the Earth. The magnetosphere deflects most of these particles around & away from the Earth, however some particles are pulled down towards the magnetic northern and southern poles. It’s these particles pulled towards the poles that create the dazzling auroras.

So where is the danger?

The key to the aurora light shows, and our survival, is the magnetosphere. Without it, Earth would be subjected to the full brunt of the emissions from the sun. If left completely exposed these charged particles would gradually strip the Earth of its atmosphere. No atmosphere, no life. It has been theorized that Mars once had a magnetosphere but lost it approximately 4 billion years ago. As a result the atmosphere was carried off into space by the solar wind. With no atmosphere the water of Mars boiled off leaving Mars a barren wasteland.

So the light shows of the auroras are the direct result of the constant defensive protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere. This shield protects all life on Earth from the never-ending stream of charged particles that would otherwise end life on Earth as we know it.