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New Scientist - How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star

New Scientist - How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star

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New Scientist - How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star
New Scientist - How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star

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(Image: Bridgman)Has a papyrus from the time of the pharaohs exposed the ghoulish habits of the baleful Demon Star? 
FROM 93 light years away in the constellationof Perseus, the Demon Star winks at us.Roughly once every three days its bright bluelight turns bloodshot as it reddens, fades for afew hours and then blazes out once more. Forthe ancient Greeks, it marked the blinking eyeof the Gorgon Medusa, whose head wassevered by Perseus. The star's morecommon name, Algol, derives from the Arabic
al-ghul 
- the ghoul.Modern astronomy suggests that the DemonStar has a grisly habit to match that reputation: it should be eating itself. Yet oddly, our observationshave never quite matched our expectations. That might now have changed - thanks not to moderntelescopes, but to information encoded on an Egyptian papyrus 3000 years ago.Algol's baleful blinking has been systematically observed since at least the 17th century. In 1783 the19-year-old amateur astronomer John Goodricke suggested in a communication to the Royal Societyof London that the cause might be a darker body passing in front of the star. But it was only in 1881that a University of Harvard astronomer called Edward Pickering confirmed the fact: there is more thanone of Algol. A dense, brilliant blue star and a diffuse, bloated red star orbit perilously close to oneanother, merging into a single point of light. The two bodies are aligned to form an eclipsing binary,with the red star periodically passing in front of the blue, blocking it from our view.
Two's a crowd
That explains the blinking, but according to current theories two such muscular stars cannot peacefullycohabit in so small a space. Algol's diffuse red star should have only a weak grip on its outer layers ofgas, and the dense blue star should be pulling this gas away and devouring it. This stellar cannibalismshould act as a drag on the stars, gradually slowing their orbit and reducing the frequency of theblinking. But in centuries of observations we have been unable to see that. Algol's current period is2.867 days, or 68 hours 48 minutes, with each eclipse lasting about 10 hours. It has changed a littleover centuries, but apparently at random. If there is any long-term slowing trend, it has been maskedby shorter-term variation - perhaps caused by magnetic fields.In 2006, Sebastian Porceddu was unaware of this mystery. He was studying for two degrees, one inastronomy and one in Egyptology, at the University of Helsinki in Finland. His astronomical specialitywas looking for hidden periods in sequences of impact craters, sunspots and the like. Helsinki
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How an ancient Egyptian code unmasked a cannibal star
18 December 2012 by
Stephen Battersby
Magazine issue2895.
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EgyptologistJaana Toivari-Viitalathought of another place he could apply this expertise. "Shesuggested I look into the calendars of lucky and unlucky days," says Porceddu.In ancient Egypt, these mystical calendars, often drawn on papyrus, assigned good and badprognoses to days and parts of days. A bad prognosis could mean hunger, thirst or disease. It wasunlucky to be born on such a day, and foolish to make a journey or lay the foundation for your house.Good omens meant health and success, and were times to feast and make sacred offerings.Some prognoses are predictable - the first day of a month is always good, for example. Others seemto be scattered at random. Toivari-Viitala wondered whether some pattern was hidden, perhapsobscured by statistical noise such as one-off prognoses tied to religious festivals and seasonalchanges. To further muddy the waters, many calendar entries are missing - perhaps eaten by ants,says Porceddu.To search for such hidden patterns, Porceddu reached for a statistical tool called the Rayleigh test.This is a bit like using the calendar to direct someone's movements. The person looks through thecalendar at regular intervals, say every four days. They read the prognosis, use it and the date asinputs of a fairly simple algorithm that spits out a direction, and then take a step in that direction. If thechosen interval does not match any hidden periodicity, the steps tend to cancel one another out."Imagine a person leaving the pub who is totally drunk," saysLauri Jetsu, Porceddu's astronomysupervisor at Helsinki. "They do not get very far." If the sampling matches a hidden period, however,the person begin to moves more purposefully.Porceddu applied this test to a papyrus called the Cairo Calendar, which dates from Egypt's NewKingdom, between 1550 and 1069 BC. He found a clear period of 29.5 days, equal to the lunar month- and a second, less obvious cycle. "It did not have such a high statistical significance, and initially wedidn't pay much attention," says Porceddu. But checking and reanalysing the data confirmed theconclusion, published in April this year: the calendar showed a clear periodicity at 2.85 daysarxiv.org/abs/1204.6206.A reasonable assumption, given the presence of the lunar cycle, is that this corresponds to somethingastronomical. And while no planet or moon has a similar period, one clearly visible varying objectdoes: Algol.This would imply that the priests of ancient Egypt were regularly monitoring variable stars, an entirelynew suggestion. At first glance the identification seemed scuppered by a simple fact. Although thecalendar period and Algol's period are close, they are not that close. Algol's observed period today islonger by about 20 minutes.But wait. Such a slowdown is what we would expect from theories of stellar cannibalism. An increaseof 20 minutes over 3000 or so years could be caused by a flow of matter between the two stars ofabout three-quarters of the mass of Jupiter in total, or five times the mass of Earth's moon every year.This mass is close to theoretical estimates for the Algol system. If there is an orbital slowdown that iscurrently being obscured, this ancient data point from the pharaoh's priests might show us it is indeedhappening.Experts in the astronomy of ancient Egypt have mixed feelings about the claim.One anonymouspeer-reviewer of the original paper was dismissive; others are cautiously supportive. "The analysisfrom the astronomical and mathematical point of view is absolutely correct. I am convinced that thereis a signal, and it seems to match Algol's behaviour," saysJuan Antonio Belmonteof the AstrophysicalInstitute of the Canaries in Tenerife. But he questions Porceddu's identification of the Eye of Horus, arepresentation of a god mentioned repeatedly in the calendar's text, with Algol. Evidence from templepaintings and carvings leads Belmonte to believe that it refers to the moon.Sarah Symons, a specialist in ancient Egyptian astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada,would like direct evidence that Algol was actually observed by the Egyptians. "But it is great to see aninterdisciplinary team working on this," she says. "Egyptologists and astronomers should have moreinformed conversations."
 
The Helsinki team had one big doubt themselves. We first got an inkling in 1912 that the Algol systemis actually three stars, with the third coasting slowly around the inner pair at a distance. This third party'sgravity could be altering the orbit of the closely bound duo, meaning that 3000 years ago there mighthave been no eclipses and no baleful variability. But this fear was assuaged in May, when anothergroup of astronomers published images of Algol showing that the third star's orbit is almost at rightangles to the inner pair, where it can have little gravitational influencearxiv.org/abs/1205.0754.So in the days of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt, the Demon Star really did flare and subsideabove the Nile. But did the pharaohs' priests watch its changing moods, or use its distant eclipses toadvise the people on the best times to celebrate? That connection will remain controversial - unlesssome day some as-yet undeciphered papyrus clearly identifies Algol and confirms that ancient datapoint for science.
Bolts from the blue
While pharaonic priests may have looked to the stars to determine their high days andholidays (see main story), tantalising evidence indicates that another sort of extraterrestrialbody had a special place in ancient Egyptian society.The idea was sparked by a sprinkling of artefacts found in ancient tombs that were made ofunusually nickel-rich iron - a metallic composition usually associated with meteorites. Theearliest are nine beads from tombs at Gerzeh, on the banks of the Nile south of Cairo, whichdate to about 3300 BC. The most extensive is a collection of objects including a series ofminiature blades found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun from about 1320 BC.Even this last find predates archaeological and written evidence for the working of terrestrialiron ores in Egypt by centuries. Couple that with the fact that the nickel-rich iron is found onlyin ritual spaces such as tombs, and it suggests that the material's origin is indeed out of thisworld, saysmeteorite specialist Diane Johnsonof the Open University, in Milton Keynes, UK."An observation of a meteorite fireball would have been a dramatic event. That might havegiven the material from it an extra magic and potency."It is a theory that was espoused by the British Egyptologist Gerald Averay Wainwright, whoopened the Gerzeh tombs in 1911. He observed that many cultures interpreted meteorites asthe product of lightning, and put other fossilised rocks that they regarded as "solidifiedlightning bolts" to extensive ceremonial use. On the north wall of Tutankhamun's tomb, apainting appears to show one of the iron blades being applied to his mummified head in aceremony known as the "opening of the mouth", which reanimated the mummy and allowed itlive on in the underworld.Other circumstantial linguistic and architectural clues suggest that the ancient Egyptiansascribed magic properties to meteoritic iron. But with a paucity of hard evidence, it's hard toprove things one way or the other, Johnson says. "We can't test it beyond looking at theartefacts."In research soon to be published, Johnson and colleagues from the University ofManchester, UK, have taken our best look yet, using scanning electron microscopy and X-rayand optical imaging to get beneath the skin of a Gerzeh bead held in the ManchesterMuseum. Like all the ancient samples, it is today heavily oxidised. Analysis of fragments ofthe original metal, however, indicate an average nickel content of about 9 per cent by weight,which far exceeds anything known from any worked iron of antiquity. That and the distributionof metals within the sample strongly support a meteoritic origin, says Johnson.
RichardWebb
Stephen Battersby 
is a consultant for New Scientist based in London 

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