Radio Freethinker

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The Non-Mysterious Spinning Egyptian Statue

Posted by Ethan Clow on June 27, 2013

The Spinning Egyptian Statue, housed in the Museum of Manchester has been making rounds these days.

Don’t you hate it when stories get spun like this?

Must have been a slow news cycle.

Okay I’ll stop now.

But seriously, the spinning Egyptian statue. I’ve seen this story pop up on various news sites and it appears to have been inspired by the blog post by museum curator Campbell Price:

“Most Egyptologists are not superstitious people. When I first noticed that one of our Middle Kingdom statuettes (Acc. no. 9325) had been turned around 180 degrees to face the back of its case in our new Ancient Worlds galleries, I wondered who had changed the object’s position this without telling me. The Egyptians themselves would have appreciated the concern to make visible for passers-by the text on its back pillar – a prayer for offerings for the deceased. Yet the next time I looked into the case, the statue was facing in another direction – and a day later had yet another orientation. None of the other objects in the display had moved. The case was locked. And I have the only key.”

The statue slowly turns around (spins) in its locked case during the day at the Manchester Museum.  The statue in question is about 4,000 years old and a relic from Egypt, it is Neb-Senu, originally an offering to Osiris, the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

You can see video of this happening here:

Science popularizer Brian Cox, who teaches physics at the University of Manchester suggests that the movement is due to Differential Friction. The two different surfaces — the bottom of the stone statuette and the glass shelf — are rubbing against each other as museum-goers create step vibrations. And it’s these vibrations that are making the statuette slowly spin.

So we have our question, why is this statue moving? We have two explanations, a supernatural one and a naturalistic one. This is a good opportunity to try out Occam’s Razor, which literally means which of these two explanations do not require us to make more assumptions about the universe?

Let’s assume the statue is moving by supernatural forces. According to Occam, we now need to account for those supernatural forces. Basically, which ones? (ghosts? Egyptian gods? curses?) what exactly is making this happen? How does it work? Why this statue and not any others? Of all the Egyptian artifacts in Britain, is this the only cursed one?

Do you see how much else we need to explain in order for the supernatural answer to be correct?

Let’s consider the naturalistic explanation. The statue is moving because of differential friction. What this means is that the base of the statue isn’t perfectly flat. So if there are vibrations of people walking past or a big truck driving across the street, it could cause the statue to move slightly. And since this is a well established scientific fact, we don’t need to assume any additional hypothesis about the universe.

Additionally, going with this hypothesis allows to come up with other answers to related questions.

For example,

a) why aren’t the other statues moving?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse is finicky?

– Natural explanation: Maybe the bases of those statues are flat.

b) why is the statue only moving during the day?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse gets off work at 6pm?

– Natural explanation: the vibrations are caused by people walking past the display, which only happens during the day.

c) why is the statue moving in a perfect circle?

– Supernatural explanation: the curse or magic likes circles?

– Natural explanation: if you look at the statue, most of its mass is on the back of the statue, this would explain why it “moves” in a circle. As it vibrates, the weight pulls it backwards, the statue appears to “spin” in spot.

d) why is the statue moving now, and not in the 80 years previously?

– Supernatural explanation: it’s taken the curse 4000 years to track down the statue?

– Natural explanation: It probably has been moving all these years, only the previous museum curators aren’t freaking morons and figured out why it was happening and didn’t use this as a dumb publicity stunt, jeopardizing their reputation and the reputation of their museum.


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