King Tutankhamen’s tomb continues to give up its secrets. This time it reveals something about a past far more ancient than the life and death of this boy-king some 3300 years ago.
Professor Jan Kramers of the University of Johannesburg, Dr Marco Andreoli of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, and Chris Harris of the University of Cape Town found the key to this secret in small black pebble found in a mysterious part of Libya’s Sahara desert known as the silica glass field. The pebble was found to contain microscopic diamonds.
This suggests that it came from the core of a comet which struck North Africa some 28 million years ago. The impact was so powerful, it pulverized the comet’s carbon nucleus into microscopic diamonds which rained down upon a 6000 square kilometer region of the Egyptian and Libyan Sahara Desert.
It is believed to be the first ever evidence of a comet striking earth.
“NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) spend billions of dollars collecting a few micrograms of comet material and bringing it back to Earth, and now we’ve got a radical new approach of studying this material, without spending billions of dollars collecting it,” says Kramers.
Long before these scientists began to unravel the mystery of Libya’s vast field of glass, Egyptians used gems made from this glass in their jewelry. One beautiful specimen of comet-glass jewelry was fashioned into a Scarab Beetle which formed part of a brooch belonging to King Tutankhamen.
The pebble which helped tell us about this ancient impact isn’t nearly as showy as King Tut’s jewelry but to a scientist it is every bit as valuable. They named the pebble Hypatia, in honor of fourth century philosopher and astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, thought to be the world’s first female mathematician.
While there are thousands of known meteor impact sites around the world and millions of meteorite fragments, Hypatia is the world’s first evidence of a comet striking the earth, the world’s first known pieces of a comet’s nucleus and the world’s largest known comet fragment.
That a ordinary black pebble can reveal so much reinforces something a famous physicist, Isaac Newton, once said:
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”