40 years ago, the Viking 1 spacecraft sent back a photo that seemed to show a giant face carved out of rock. But the explanation for this isn’t extraterrestrial at all. In fact, it is very, very human.
Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, discovered the asteroid Hesperia and determined that meteor showers were associated with the passage of comets.
But he is most well known for discovering canals on Mars.
Now, whether Schiaparelli himself actually thought his observations were of artificial structures isn’t clear. He called them canali, which in Italian means channels and channels can be either natural or man-made. But it was mistranslated as canals in the english press, which implied they were artificial structures — constructed by intelligent beings on Mars.
Either way, his observations of canals on the planet’s surface sparked the imagination of people all around the world.
None more than Percival Lowell.
In the clear, high desert of Flagstaff, Arizona, Percival Lowell set up the first observatory purposely built in a remote location, far from city lights, in an area conducive for astronomical observations.
While he is probably best known for facilitating the discovery of Pluto, Percival Lowell’s greatest legacy is his detailed studies of the canals on Mars.
More than anyone, Lowell pushed the idea that the canals were evidence of intelligent life there.
He theorized that Mars was home to an ancient civilization that had set up the canals to transport water from the poles to the lower latitudes of a planet that was slowly dying of thirst.
For 15 years he studied the canals and published three volumes on the subject. He even described similar canals on the planet Venus. He staked much of his career on these canals, and his reputation subsequently suffered. Many scientists rejected his finds outright and astronomers had trouble confirming his observations.
Because the canals didn’t exist.
In the 1960s, NASA sent several orbiters to the red planet and captured nothing but an empty, cratered surface.
Mars is a near vacuum and liquid water cannot exist on its surface. There is nothing on Mars — artificial or natural — that Lowell, or Schiaparelli, or anyone else at the time could’ve mistaken for canals.
Which leaves us with the puzzling conclusion that the canals were nothing more than a shared, optical illusion.
In fact, it has been proposed that Lowell’s numerous and detailed drawings of these canals were, in actuality, drawings of the blood vessels in his own eye.
But if we can be certain about one thing, our quirky human brains have a tendency to impose order on random imagery. Look at the chaotic battered surface of Mars long enough, through the fluctuating distortion of the Earth’s atmosphere, and you too will start to see strange objects and images.
This is called Pareidolia. And it extends far beyond just Mars.
You experience this whenever you see a constellation in the night sky or a shape in the clouds or canals on the surface of Mars. Psychologists even take advantage of this characteristic of our brain with Rorschach tests, encouraging us to find meaning in random blots of ink.
Pareidolia is a subset of Apophenia — which is the tendency to find patterns in random sets of data.
Like most everything we do, apophenia is a result of evolution. Our brains have evolved to recognize patterns in the natural world because it is a survival advantage. Being able to detect the movement of a predator stalking through the savannah or identify the presence of camouflaged prey can mean the difference between life and death.
All animals do this. Even viruses employ a primitive form of pattern recognition to identify host cells.
Pattern recognition even extends to machines.
Computers and smartphones do it every time you enter a password. Facial recognition software is an attempt to replicate our own pattern identification abilities.
Google’s DeepDream software is basically an extreme form of pareidolia rendered in code.
And pareidolia had an even more specific purpose for our human ancestors. The ability to quickly recognize a face meant one could quickly identify a human — and a possible ally. As our species progressed and group customs became more complex, mere facial recognition evolved into social recognition. Since we convey a lot of our feelings through our facial expressions, recognizing a face meant recognizing someone’s emotional state. And your survival could depend on knowing whether or not someone was happy to see you.
Almost 100 years after Shiaparelli observed his canals, NASA snapped this picture. The face on Mars.
But it’s not the only face we’ve seen on Mars.
We’ve seen a smiley face and even a profile of Mahatma Gandhi. And since we’ve put down a couple rovers on the surface these faces and figures keep appearing. We’ve seen a bunny face, a rat, an iguana, and a figure that looks suspiciously like Bigfoot.
We see all these faces because we are wired to.
For the entire lifespan of our species, we have used faces to navigate the complex emotional landscape of the human experience. So when we approach an alien landscape, millions of miles away from home, we instinctively search for faces. They are our first conduit to understanding.
So when we see a face in a weathered mound of rocks, we are ultimately seeking an ally in our search for insight.
Because that is what the scientific method is all about.
It’s a way to use the community to verify and replicate our observations. Just as our ancestors relied on each other for survival, scientists rely on one another for consensus. Otherwise, we are just like Percival Lowell, working alone with observations that can’t be replicated.
What apophenia and pareidolia really show us is that we are inexorably dependent on others to verify the world around us. We need a separate set of eyes to ground our perceptions and keep us from falling prey to our illusions.
Knowledge can’t exist in a vacuum
So the next time we see signs of intelligent life on Mars, whether it’s a pile of rocks or trick of light or the blood vessels in our own eyes, we can be sure of one thing: Everything we see on the red planet exists in a near vacuum and true knowledge cannot.
Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs4CeAHyLos