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234 × 156 mm
304 pages
164 illustrations, 84 in colour
24 May 2013

Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur Mythology and Geology of the Underworld Salomon Kroonenberg

Today scarcely anywhere on land or sea remains unexplored, but we are still largely in the dark about what lies beneath the surface of the earth. For thousands of years, writers and artists have imagined hell to be located somewhere in this underground realm, associating it with fire and shadows, blackness and death.

Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur takes the mythology of this subterranean world as its point of departure and leads the reader on an expedition into the depths of the earth, treading in the footsteps of Orpheus and Odysseus, taking us through the circles of Dante’s Inferno and pausing at the side of a lake near Naples in search of hell’s gate as it was described by Virgil in the Aeneid. This journey towards the earth’s core, imagined by so many, from Homer to Leonardo to Jules Verne, would be more than 6,000 km long, a distance comparable to that between Paris and New York.

Turning a scientific spotlight on the legends of the underworld, this book probes the many layers of the earth’s interior one by one, allowing mythology and geology to shed light on each other. It describes the variety of gases, ores, liquids and metals that lie beneath our feet in caves, mines, boreholes and geysers, revealing that this underground ecosystem is a unique archive of information that can teach us much about our ancient planet, whose riches we can still barely guess at.

Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur is a fascinating quest into the infernal depths, uniting the scientific, the literary and the artistic, and at the same time an appeal to prevent humankind’s thirst for natural resources from exhausting the earth.

‘Dutch geologist Kroonenberg takes an unconventional approach to ancient descriptions of the Underworld in this compelling literary and geological survey . . . Interwoven with the voices of poets and philosophers from Homer to Herodotus is a history of the science of geology, accompanied by abundant diagrams and photos. Kroonenberg deftly “balances . . . on the edge between science and myth,” inserting lyric beauty into a topic many consider monumentally lifeless. Traveling to the center of the Earth and back with him makes one appreciate the wonder of the underworld.’ – Publishers' Weekly starred review

‘Kroonenberg seems to be having the time of his life in this beguiling mix of travelogue and geological exposition. There can’t be many geologists who can write with such easy erudition on both halves of his subtitle: Kroonenberg clearly had a fine classical education . . . By the time Kroonenberg, having fully channelled his inner Dante, claims to be travelling from the Earth’s very centre up to the surface, excitedly describing everything he sees, the reader is perfectly happy to go along for the ride.' Macleans

‘A real strength of Kroonenberg’s approach is that he does not simply seek to dispel myths and biblical tales with science, but carefully considers the evidence for their origins found preserved in the lakes, mountains, caves, boreholes and mines encountered during his personal and professional travels . . . perhaps the most engaging aspect of Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur is that Kroonenberg never loses sight of the human angle of his quest to find hell, telling the stories of the people and civilisations past and present that he encounters on his journey, and weaving a plea throughout the book for humans to resist depleting Earth of all its riches – be they minerals, ores, hydrocarbons or simply a boundary between two layers of rock containing secrets about past geological events – and to leave something behind for future generations to ponder and marvel at.’ – Times Higher Education

‘the work of someone who knows not only his subject but the history and sources of his own mind. This might be called full intellectual maturity, a ripening; the quality is rare.’ – Insider Higher Education

‘a worthwhile addition to serious collections of either classical mythology and science fiction or geology.’ – Library Journal

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Salomon Kroonenberg is Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of Delft. He is the author of The Human Scale, which was awarded the Eureka Prize in 2007 for best non-specialist scientific literature.