7. The "Face on Mars", and Related Rubbish

The so-called “Face on Mars”, and other stupidity associated with it, is another fine example, both of how an elaborate myth can be created out of nothing, and of how those who want to believe in a ridiculous notion will continue to do so, even after it has been thoroughly discredited.

7.1. The “Face”

In July 1976, NASA’s two Viking probes arrived at Mars. These are best remembered as the first spacecraft which successfully landed on the planet, and carried out experiments to search for evidence of life there. But each probe also had an orbiter, which photographed the planet’s surface in unprecedented detail.
One of the Viking orbiter images, of Mars’ Cydonia region, showed a strange feature which bore a striking resemblance to a human ( or humanoid ) face. ( Fig. 1 ).

Fig. 1

NASA released this image to the media, simply as an amusing curiosity – “Look, folks – there’s a hill on Mars that looks like a face!” The rational among us responded by thinking, “Oh yes, so it does. How amusing!”, and thought nothing more of it. It’s obviously just an illusion - a pattern of light and shadow, which our minds interpret as looking like a face. ( By the way, the black dots in the image are simply data errors in the transmission of the image. )
The “Face” is really nothing more than a natural feature; it’s a steep-sided and flat-topped plateau about 1.5 kilometres across – what geologists call a mesa – the top of which has been eroded by the Martian wind and sandstorms. In fact, it only looks like a face in this particular image – at one particular angle of illumination and at one particular level of resolution. Close-up images taken by the same spacecraft ( see Fig. 3 below ), at higher resolution, showed quite clearly that it was just an eroded mesa, with elevations and depressions which just vaguely resemble a face.
Inevitably, though, some of the Lunatic Fringe came up with the idea that the “Face” really was a face – some kind of gigantic monument, built by an alien civilisation for some unfathomable purpose! A leading proponent of this belief was an American writer, Richard C. Hoagland, who is well-known in “pseudoscience” circles, and a perennial source of irritation to real scientists, as for many years, he has been peddling a variety of bizarre “conspiracy theories” and associated nonsense. As well as writing a number of books, he has frequently been given airtime on a US radio talk show with several million listeners. Hoagland later came up with a succession of ever more ridiculous notions about Mars; in particular, he believes that some natural features in Cydonia, close to the “Face”, are really the ruins of an ancient Martian city! ( See Section 7.3. )
Equally inevitably, as NASA stated in the media that the “Face” was nothing of the sort, the “conspiracy theories” followed. Hoagland and others claimed that NASA had discovered evidence of life on Mars, either present or past, but was covering it up!
The obvious question is – why??? Firstly, it was NASA who released the original “Face” picture to the media in the first place! Why would they do that, if they were trying to keep something secret? More importantly, the search for evidence of life has been a primary objective, and a much-publicised one, of all of NASA’s probes to that planet! The two Viking landers were each equipped with an automated chemical laboratory, which analysed the Martian soil with three different experiments, to try to detect evidence of biological activity. So for what conceivable, bizarre reason, would NASA and the US Government spend several billion dollars searching for evidence of life, tell the world that they were doing so – and then cover it up when they found it? This is typical of a paranoid “conspiracy theory”, which makes no sense whatsoever, and falls apart at the very first stage of rational analysis!
Two decades later, NASA sent a succession of other probes to Mars, equipped with much more sophisticated cameras and instruments than Viking. In April 1998, the Mars Global Surveyor ( MGS ) spacecraft used its Mars Orbiter Camera ( MOC ) to photograph the “Face” at ten times better resolution than that of the Viking images. Not surprisingly, the resulting image – and one taken at even higher resolution in 2001 ( Fig. 2 ) – show conclusively that the feature is just an eroded mesa, and looks nothing like a face at all. This was, of course, deliberate; realising that the later probes would be passing over the “Face” at particular times, NASA made a point of photographing it again, in the hope of finally laying the conspiracy nonsense to rest.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3 shows three images side by side, taken at successively higher resolution. At left is a close-up from Viking, taken at the same time as the original “Face” image. Even this clearly shows that the feature is natural, and looks only vaguely like a face! The centre image was taken by MGS in 1998, and that at right in 2001. For comparison, the resolution of the Viking image is 43 metres per pixel; that of the 2001 image is an amazing 1.6 metres per pixel!

Fig. 3

These later images show conclusively that it really looks nothing at all like a face – though it’s easy to identify the elevations and depressions which cause the illusion of a face in the lower-resolution images.
But of course, none of this satisfied the conspiracy theorists! Hoagland claimed that the later images had been “doctored”, to falsely make the feature no longer resemble a face! He also later claimed that he himself had “predicted all along that it wouldn’t look like a face at higher resolution”. This was complete rubbish; he had spent years claiming that it not only looked like a face, but was a face, that it was an alien monument, etc., and his later barmy ideas about a “Martian city” ( see Section 7.3 ) had followed from this.
This is another classic feature of every paranoid “conspiracy theory” ( remember what I said in Section 6.3, about the term being a misnomer ); no matter how much evidence is presented, which proves it wrong, the “believers” invariably claim that that evidence was faked, as a further part of the conspiracy.
In December 2003, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe arrived at the planet, carrying with it the British Beagle 2 lander. The latter was also intended to search for evidence of life, but it sadly failed; it never established contact after landing. Presumably it crashed, or was damaged during landing, but no-one knows for certain. But some conspiracy theorists have actually made the outrageous allegation that NASA “shot it down”! ( With what??? )
Professional astronomer Phil Plait has, as always, done a better job than I can of debunking Hoagland’s lunacy, on his excellent Bad Astronomy web site. See http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/hoagland/face.html.

7.2. “Seeing” faces

Why should we even be surprised, at seeing a feature on Mars which looks a bit like a face? There are many natural rock formations on Earth, which resemble – sometimes with a little imagination - faces, human figures, animals, etc. There’s one somewhere in the United States, known as the Guardian of the Badlands, which is so big that it can only be seen from the air; it not only resembles a human face, but specifically a face wearing a Native American headdress!
The human brain doesn’t like randomness; it likes order and recognisable patterns, and has a habit of subconsciously interpreting random patterns as familiar ones. This tendency to “see” patterns which aren’t really there is a well-known psychological phenomenon, called pareidolia; it’s even utilised by psychiatrists to assess people’s mental state, in the famous ink blot test!
In most cases, we recognise such spurious patterns for what they are – nothing more than illusions or figments of our imagination. But sometimes, for whatever reason, people somehow convince themselves that what they are seeing is real, and their minds turn an illusion into a delusion.
Pareidolia may well explain some supposed UFO sightings, not to mention reported “sightings” of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and even Elvis! And it certainly explains many supposed religious “visions”, where people claim, for example, to have seen images of the Virgin Mary in all kinds of weird and wonderful places. People have claimed to have seen such images in the bark of a tree, and even in a burnt tortilla! ( I kid you not! ) There was a case just a few years ago in the USA, where people travelled from all over the country to see a supposed “apparition of Mary” - which was in fact a salt and water stain on the wall of a storm drain!
Our tendency to recognise spurious patterns applies particularly to faces. Think about it; our brains are “programmed” to recognise faces. The first thing a new-born baby sees, as soon as it first opens its eyes, is usually its mother’s face. The recognition of faces is vitally important in our everyday lives; it’s the primary way in which we identify our family members, friends and acquaintances. ( Even blind people learn to “recognise” the faces of their friends by touch. ) And it’s commonplace for us to “see” imaginary faces in cloud formations, cracks in a ceiling, and so on.
Think about the “smileys” which people put in e-mails and text messages:


We see nothing more than three punctuation marks, but we recognise it as a smiling face – albeit lying on its side – or a frowning face if the bracket is reversed. In this case, of course, we “see” a face, simply because we know that it’s supposed to be a face!
There is even another example on Mars. The crater Galle ( Fig. 4 ) is informally known as “Happy Face Crater”, for obvious reasons!

Fig. 4

For more about pareidolia, and how it leads to such things as religious “visions”, see the Skeptic’s Dictionary web site, www.skepdic.com/pareidol.html.

7.3. Other Hoagland stupidity: The “Martian city”

Richard Hoagland has come up with no end of other ridiculous claims about Mars. I won’t waste space here debunking them all, as Phil Plait has already done an excellent job of it – see http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/hoagland/index.html - but I’ll briefly mention two of them, just to demonstrate how stupid it all is.
His claims about the “Face” in Cydonia are only the start of it. He claims to have discovered, in the region near the “Face”, the ruins of an ancient Martian city! Firstly, his web site shows some highly magnified images, which apparently show straight lines and rectangular shapes, which appear, at first sight, to be evidence of artificiality.
I say “apparently”, because they are no such thing; the appearance of straight lines and regular shapes is merely an artefact of Hoagland’s image processing – the kind of distortion which results when any digital image is magnified too highly and compressed to too high a degree, losing its resolution and making its pixels visible. Plait demonstrates, quite convincingly, how this happens – see http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/hoagland/city.html.
But more importantly ( to Hoagland, that is! ), he claims to have discovered remarkable “mathematical relationships” between the positions of his alleged “artefacts”, and the angles between them.
Hoagland drew a series of lines between the features in the images ( artificial to him, natural to the rest of us! ), measured various angles between them ( and claimed to have done so to an unrealistic degree of accuracy ), and then claimed that the ratios between the sines and cosines of these angles are remarkably close to various multiples of mathematical constants, such as e, pi and the square root of two. These relationships, he claims, “prove” that the features in the images are artificial.
After years of touting the “Face” as evidence of life and intelligence on Mars, he later demoted it to, in his own words, “a secondary or confirmatory status”, and made his “city” claim the primary basis of his mad theories.
Needless to say, the whole thing is complete drivel! Firstly, Hoagland arbitrarily chose some features, and ignored others. Then he arbitrarily drew some of the lines connecting those features, and not others; in fact, as he used 17 features, there were thousands of possible combinations, but he used only a couple of dozen. ( Could it be, perhaps, that he began with a greater number of features and connecting lines, and kept only those which gave the results he wanted? )
Secondly, the “mathematical relationships” he claims are absolutely meaningless! Every measurement has an uncertainty associated with it, related to the accuracy of the measuring instrument. Scientists take this for granted, and always accompany measurements with an estimate of their uncertainty. A scientist would never state that a measured angle is 120 degrees; he would state it as something like “120 plus or minus 0.1 degrees”. For such a crude process as measuring angles on a photograph with a ruler and protractor, the uncertainty is probably more of the order of plus or minus one degree; Hoagland, inevitably, doesn’t tell us anything about the accuracy of his measurements, but claims that such and such an angle is exactly 120 degrees, when it could actually be anywhere between 119 and 121.
When measurements are used in calculations, it follows that the result is also uncertain, by an amount related to the uncertainties of the original numbers. So you can’t possibly say that, for example, “the ratio of the sines of angles A and B is equal to p / 2”; you can only say that it’s within the range p / 2 ± d, where d is the uncertainty.
Given that he has such a huge number of potential angles and ratios to play around with, it’s inevitable that, by the laws of probability, a few of the ratios will be approximately equal to some mathematical constant, or some multiple thereof, to within some arbitrarily chosen degree of accuracy. And doing the same “analysis” with any set of random numbers would produce similar results. On Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait includes a link to the site of a professor of mathematics who has proved exactly that; he took a set of random numbers from a telephone directory, played around with them in the same arbitrary manner as Hoagland did, and produced a number of similar apparent “relationships”. So it has been proved, quite conclusively, that Hoagland’s “magic” numbers are nothing of the sort.
Plait makes a further point here. The fact that Hoagland’s mathematical analysis is bogus does not, in itself, conclusively disprove the notion that the features in Cydonia are artificial. However, Hoagland claims that the features are artificial, primarily because of his supposed mathematical ratios; therefore, the entire basis of his theory is blown out of the water. And since he himself has stated that this is his primary line of evidence, and that everything else ( including the “Face” ) is of secondary importance, it follows that his entire “theory”, regarding the evidence of life on Mars, is completely unfounded.
If you think all that is barmy, there’s worse to come… Hoagland has actually made the outrageous allegation that NASA discovered a Martian creature – and then killed it!

7.4. Other Hoagland stupidity: The “White Bunny”

In January 2004, NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on the Red Planet. These remarkable robots have proved to be one of the greatest successes in the history of planetary exploration; they were designed to operate for only 90 Martian days, yet at the time of writing, both are still performing, after more than three and a half years!
[ Update, February 2014: Spirit ceased communication in March 2010, after just over six years of operation, and was officially declared “dead” the following year. Opportunity is still operating, albeit at reduced capability, after an incredible ten years! ]
On 4 February 2004, just a few days after Opportunity landed, and before it had rolled off its lander to begin its exploration, the rover took a series of panoramic pictures of the landscape around its landing site. Some of the pictures contained an anomaly – a small, light-coloured object lying on the ground in isolation, a few metres from the lander.
This mysterious object – it wasn’t shown with sufficient resolution for anyone to make out what it was - certainly looked out of place, and didn’t look like a rock or any natural Martian feature. It was white or yellowish in colour, and vaguely resembled the head of a rabbit, with long ears, or perhaps a skull with horns. To see a closeup of the object, together with Phil Plait’s analysis of this silly story, see http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/hoagland/bunny.html.
The object appeared to move between successive images, suggesting that it was something lightweight, which was moving in the Martian wind. In images taken a little later, it had disappeared; presumably it had blown some distance away in the wind.
Inevitably, some of the Lunatic Fringe – Hoagland included – immediately claimed that the mystery object – facetiously nicknamed the “White Bunny” by mission controllers - was some kind of Martian creature, or perhaps the remains or fossil of one. Hoagland claimed, once again, that NASA had found evidence of Martian life, and had then covered it up! First, he claimed that the “bunny” had been digitally removed from the later images; then he went a step further, and alleged that the rover had actually run over the creature or fossil, killing or crushing it – and even that it had been deliberately directed to do so! That latter claim is based on the fact that one of the rover’s later images, looking back towards the lander after it had moved away, and showing its own tracks, clearly shows that Opportunity was diverted a little way sideways from its direct course, and then back onto course.
So I’ll ask once again – why would they do such a thing? I’ll repeat what I said in Section 7.1; the search for evidence of life has been a primary objective, and a much-publicised one, of all of NASA’s probes to that planet! So for what conceivable, bizarre reason, would NASA and the US Government spend several billion dollars searching for evidence of life, tell the world that they were doing so – and then cover it up when they found it?
And if they did, for whatever unfathomable reason, then they didn’t make a very good job of it, did they? Firstly, all NASA images are released into the public domain almost immediately – so exactly when was the alleged doctoring of the images supposed to have taken place? And why would they remove the “bunny” from the later images, but not from the first ones? Or to put it another way, why would they remove the object from the later images, after the earlier ones, which showed it, had already been made public?
And remember, Hoagland would have us believe that NASA has been covering up evidence of Martian life since 1976! If that was the case, then it stands to reason that every image would be carefully scrutinised, and doctored as necessary, before being made public. Like most conspiracy “theories”, this one isn’t even self-consistent!
Once again, Hoagland and his “believers” don’t appear to have heard of Occam’s Razor. To the rational, there is a pretty obvious explanation for the mystery object. We are trying to explain something which is out of place in the Martian landscape – but there’s one very obvious thing, which definitely is completely out of place there… the spacecraft itself! Surely the simplest explanation is that the object is some small piece of the spacecraft, which was broken or torn off on landing.
While it’s impossible to be certain of exactly what the “bunny” is, the consensus among the mission controllers – based on its colour and the fact that it moved in the wind – is that it’s most likely a fragment of material from one of the airbags which the lander used to cushion its landing. And given that it’s something so lightweight, the obvious explanation for its subsequent “disappearance” is simply that it blew away in a stronger gust of wind! Indeed, an image taken shortly after Opportunity moved away from the lander, looking back at the lander itself, shows a hint of what could be the same object, lying under the ramp down which the rover had rolled. Needless to say, the purpose of Opportunity’s sideways diversion was to examine a rock which attracted the scientists’ interest – which is, after all, exactly what it’s there to do!
Hoagland has come up with no end of other ridiculous ideas and fantasies, which he publicises on his web site. Some of them are so totally idiotic, that Phil Plait has speculated that perhaps he is just taking the Mickey – deliberately trying to see how far he can go, and still find people stupid enough to believe him! I’m not going to mention any more of them here, but Plait shoots down a few more on Bad Astronomy.
To summarise, Hoagland’s claims are not only absurd, but are also hugely insulting to NASA and its engineers and scientists. He has spent years vilifying the agency, and denigrating its proudest achievements, based on no real evidence whatsoever. Why can’t he just shut up?

7.5. “The Face of God”… and his dog and cat!

Another sad case of astronomical pareidolia concerns one of the most famous of all astronomical photographs – perhaps the most iconic of all the images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope.
In 1995, Hubble took the famous picture of the central region of Messier 16, the Eagle Nebula, which became known as the “Pillars of Creation” ( Fig. 5 ).

Fig. 5

The image shows the central part of a huge complex of gas and dust, in which new stars are being “born”. Each of those “pillars” is around one light year long; for the uninitiated, a light year – the distance which light travels in a year – is equal to 9.5 million million kilometres.
This dramatic and beautiful image quickly captured the public imagination, and has been reproduced countless times in the media the world over. My study, for one, is adorned with a three-foot poster print of it.
But I suppose it went without saying, that the loonies would have to get in on the act…
Someone discovered, somewhere in the image, a pattern of light and shade which vaguely resembled – yes, you’ve guessed it – a face! More specifically, it looked like the face of a bearded man… Can you guess where this is going?
The “face” is near the horizontal-facing tip of the left hand “pillar”; when the picture is the right way up, the “face” is lying on its side. Fig. 6 shows a close-up of the region, turned through 90o to show the “face” the right way up.

Fig. 6

Perhaps, with a little imagination, this image does look just a bit like the face of Jesus, as he is traditionally depicted in religious art. Once again, the response of the rational is, “Oh yes, so it does. Big deal!” But inevitably, certain religious loonies decided that it is the face of Jesus! Some of their web sites sported headlines such as “Is this the face of God?”, and “Jesus is alive in outer space!”
D’ohhh!!! These people are overlooking just a couple of trifling details… Firstly, estimating from the overall scale of the picture, their “face” is something like two hundred thousand million kilometres across! Secondly, the Eagle Nebula is 7000 light years away; that means that the light by which we are now seeing the “face” was emitted 5000 years before Jesus was born!
The rational explanation, naturally, is that we’re seeing yet another example of pareidolia. Phil Plait discusses the “Face of God” on Bad Astronomy – see http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/lenin.html - and points out that, also with a little imagination, it’s possible to see numerous other familiar shapes in the Pillars of Creation image ( and, for that matter, probably in any other Hubble image of any gaseous nebula! ).
Two of these are quite obvious, as soon as they are pointed out. ( I must emphasise that these are Plait’s “creations”, not mine. ) Look at the upper quarter or so of the left hand pillar; there’s a big region which seems to stand out against the background, and which quite distinctly looks like a dog. Not just any dog, but specifically a Scottish terrier, sitting up and begging! It’s about ten times as big as the “face of Jesus” – which lies just to the right of the dog’s nose – and far more prominent.
Now look further down the same pillar, about a third of the way up from the bottom, and at 8 o’clock from the bright star. Isn’t that a cat? It’s a lot smaller than the dog, but still quite distinct – a cat lying down and curled up, facing to the right.
( If you can’t make them out, Plait’s article includes images with both the dog and cat highlighted. )
Those are the easy ones; with a bit more imagination, Plait says he has “seen” several other animals and birds, and even other faces.
Now, I myself had never noticed any of these shapes, until I read Phil Plait’s article. But ever since reading it, I can no longer look at the picture, without seeing those two most prominent ones. When I look at the big poster print on my study wall, I have to look pretty closely to see the “face of Jesus”, even now that I know where it is. But every time I look at it now, both dog and cat jump right out at me! Hence the heading of this subsection; I just can’t help laughing at the thought of it. The Face of God in space… together with his dog and cat!

N.B. Phil Plait, on his Bad Astronomy blog site, frequently features ridiculous examples of pareidolia – usually of the religious kind – which have been reported in the media, and debunks them with his own brand of humour and sarcasm. In a recent, and particularly hilarious, example, someone actually claimed to have seen the face of Jesus in the lid of a Marmite jar!
One commenter has made a very valid point about “visions” of this kind, namely: How is it actually possible for anyone to see an “image” of Jesus or Mary in anything – as we have absolutely no idea what they looked like!
Think about it. Even assuming that Jesus and Mary did actually exist as human beings – which is by no means certain – there exists not a single image of either of them, of any kind – e.g. painting, carving or statue – which was produced during their lifetimes. ( And please, don’t anyone mention the Shroud of Turin; that was conclusively proved to be a fake many years ago! ) The traditional portrayals of them, in religious art, are simply based on what some mediaeval artists imagined that they looked like! And of course, it’s completely false; as Jesus is supposed to have been born in the Middle East, it stands to reason that he did not look like a northern European, with fair hair and blue eyes!

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