Sunday, February 15, 2009

The "Face on Mars" and pareidolia

Mainstream skeptics commonly dismiss the Face on Mars as an example of "pareidolia," the brain's attempt to attribute meaning to random stimuli. After all, there are several natural formations here on Earth that bear a passing resemblance to human faces. The now-toppled "Old Man in the Mountain" is probably the most-cited example.

Most of the likenesses described by Face on Mars debunkers are profile images: Viewed from only a slightly different angle, the celebrated face-like resemblance vanishes, replaced by an obviously natural phenomenon. While profiles rely on a minimum of information to convey a sense of the mysterious (contours to suggest features such as a "nose," "mouth," etc.), the Face on Mars is different in several notable respects. For instance, the Face appears to be a frontal portrait. While computer modeling reveals a striking facial profile when seen from the perspective of an observer on the Martian surface, the Face retains a humanoid likeness when viewed from above. This doesn't prove that the Face is the work of intelligence, but it tends to elevate it from the oft-mentioned examples wielded by geologists convinced the Face on Mars must invariably yield to prosaic explanations.

Moreover, and perhaps more interestingly, high-resolution images of the Face reveal detail not visible in the early Viking photographs. Astronomer Tom Van Flandern, for instance, quickly noted the presence of accurately situated features such as an apparent "pupil" in one of the "eyes" as well as "nostrils" and "lips" -- all of which were beyond the resolving power of the Viking mission.

The low odds of such secondary facial characteristics occurring by chance helped belie the notion that the Face on Mars was the product of garden-variety pareidolia. If the Face on Mars is indeed a windblown butte, it's a great deal stranger than imagined prior to high-resolution scans. Indeed, if the same level of detail had been detected on a terrestrial surface feature, it's probable that archaeologists would have been consulted in order to assess its merit as a potential artifact.

It would seem the Face's unlikely presence on a "dead" world has effectively doomed it to pop-science oblivion. But the Face is far from a solitary anomaly; it shares the Cydonia region with other, equally intriguing features that call for careful analysis. Taken together, an objective viewer is presented with a gnawing puzzle that may ultimately demolish the easy certainties that coincide with the traditional view of our solar system.

I'll continue to explore the anomalies on Mars in my next post.

This piece originally appeared at

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