Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Algol, or the Demon Star

Recently, I have stumbled upon an interesting thing about one of the stars, Algol.

Algol is a group of three stars, orbiting each other, in a distance of about 100 light years from Earth. The stars orbit so close to each other, that to our eyes, it looks like a single star -  that is blinking every few days, changing brightness and color. That might have been the reason why the star is commonly known as "The Demon Star".

What is quite interesting is that this star has grim names is almost every human language (Algol comes directly from Arabic "Al Ghoul", which means a head of a Ghoul, in Hebrew it's name means "Satan's Head", and in the ancient Chinese texts the star is named "Pile of Corpses").

Why suddenly such a consistent, strong negative association for this particular star - also, one that lies so far away from Earth?

As it turns out, it was not always so. The latest research on the paths of stars (nothing really sits still in our universe) suggests that Algol was passing so close to our Sun it actually disturbed the outer reaches of our solar system (the Oort cloud) about 7.3 million years ago!

While measured by a human lifespan this seems like a lot, in the timeframe of our planet is but a blink of an eye - dinosaurs were already extinct, the continents looked almost as they look right now, and - who knows - maybe our distant ancestors were already walking the Earth!

One might wonder - was there something associated with Algol that scared our forefathers -  a knowledge carried over to all the cultures, influencing the negative names the star got in every language? Before you go all "Däniken-ish" (alien race feasting on humans, a DNA memory so deep that even after millions of years every culture on Earth still passes the fear of that particular star to the next generations, even though the reasons behind it were forgotten....) - there is something perfectly natural to think of.

Te Oort cloud, disturbed by a large mass of a triple star system passing nearby, created a huge number of comets - which, in turn, had rained on Earth causing death and destruction. I know that still the part about pre-human creatures living 7 or so million years ago is a bit far fetched - but, who knows, the missing link and all that.

That particular research predictis that Proxima Centauri will be replaced by other stars as "the closest star to the solar system" in the future - also, quite an interesting perspective. Maybe if we fail at creating a FTL drive, we will succeed in living long enough as a species to see the stars come to us.

For those who would like to read more:

- on Algol,
- on the motion of stars near the Solar System,