Pareidolia and Space

NGC 6559

NGC 6559

What do you see here? When I first saw this image taken by Gemini Observator’s Travis Rector, I thought to myself, “hmmm… interesting dust cloud and nebula.”

Peter Michaud, Gemini’s Public Information Officer, sent it to me along with a press release for me to edit. We chatted about the image, and he asked me if I thought it looked like a Chinese dragon. Up until that moment, I’d been thinking it looked like the snout of a bull, or some cosmic graffiti. A Chinese dragon hadn’t occurred to me.

The fact that the two of us could see such different things in it, all recognizable, is a fine example of pareidolia, the perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random (see The Word Spy for other examples of targeted perceptions of random objects or patterns). If you’ve ever looked up at clouds in the sky and seen ships or cats or capering clowns, then you’ve been engaging in pareidolia.

Eskimo Nebula as seen by HST

Eskimo Nebula as seen by HST

A lot of space photos lend themselves to some wonderful flights of imagination. One of my favorites is the Eskimo Nebula.

Hubble Space Telescope took this image of a planetary nebula that only started to look like this about 10,000 years ago. It was a sun-like star, and in another 10,000 years it may look very different, as the wisps of its atmosphere continue to spread out through space.

That’s part of the beauty of pareidolia—it has an essentially fleeting quality. Wait long enough and the thing you thought you saw, like the ship in the clouds, goes away as the cloud dissipates. Wait long enough (in cosmic time) and the Chinese Dragon and the Eskimo will go away, too. Enjoy ’em while you can!

Is Anybody Still Interested?

Over the years I’ve given public science lectures in a bunch of different venues. The topics have been pretty varied, ranging from the cool stuff the Hubble Space Telescope shows us to talks about comets or my job (back when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope). My two favorite types of venues are science-fiction (and Trek-type) conventions and public star parties.

When I first started doing this, there would usually be a good turnout of folks, particularly at the star parties and Trek conventions. After all, there’s a fair amount of interest in space and astronomy in both crowds.

I remember my first Trek convention, when I was asked to come in and talk about HST science. The telescope was launched the year before and we were starting to see some pretty cool science come down. They put me in a huge auditorium and I remember thinking that I’d be lucky if I had 20 people. I shouldn’t have worried: I had 20 Klingons in full battle dress show up and take the front rows, and the auditorium filled up quickly.

Fast-forward a few years to last year, when I was a guest speaker and panelist at the World Science Fiction convention. The science interest was really high at that conference, the rooms where I sat in as a guest panelist for various discussions were filled to overflowing. One of the panels I guested on was a rousing discussion of whether or not we should terraform Venus! The science topics were cogently presented and it was a great time.

Later in the day, I was supposed to present a talk for children about the stars and planets. I was lucky to get three kids and they were tired and irritable. It was something of a disappointment, but then again I couldn’t tell if the face-painting and “make a sword” class was just simply more popular than somebody talking about the stars and planets. Or maybe stars and planets just weren’t on their radar screens.

Which leads me to wonder about what interests folks about space these days. We have no shortage of great news from the major observatories, the rovers on Mars, and the spacecraft at Saturn. The Chinese are well on their way to space exploration, although their accomplishments didn’t get much press in the U.S. (which I think is too bad because it’s a lot of very tough work to get stuff into space and anytime somebody can launch something and not have it go “plonk” into the drink they should be lauded for it).

Certainly we have the ability to look out to nearly the beginning of time with our ever-more-powerful astronomical instruments. That’s an amazing feat that is somehow not as interesting as the current debates on whether or not we should be teaching religion in science classrooms. I have to wonder if all science will succumb to this debate, even the very real and tangible discoveries we’re making in the cosmos each day.

A more important question, perhaps, is to ask ourselves what we know about science. What do we really know and what do we WANT to know? For many people, science is still this scary subject, along with math, that people have to endure in school. Which is too bad, because it’s not really as bad as people make it out to be. Which leads me to wonder if the anti-science sentiment we see in some people isn’t fear of understanding, masking itself as false pride in a non-accomplishment.

Think about it. Why is pride in being dumb or afraid of science such a great thing? What does this say about a person? What happens to the kids who think space is cool and say so when they see a great picture in the paper? Why can’t we harness this more effectively to bring the wonder of science to people (and not frighten them)? Or, are we living among people who think, as Barbie was once programmed to say, “Science is hard” even as they are surrounded by some of the most amazing science ever shared?

Look around in your newspaper or local events notices and see how many public science lectures there are in your area. If there aren’t any, ask yourself why. Science is such an important part of our lives, yet it is increasingly coming under fire from public officials, religious officials, and regular people — each attacking it for their own reasons. Yet, if it weren’t for science, we wouldn’t have the means to attack it — the TV shows, the blogs, the books, the newspaper reporters who report the “debates” between science and religion as spectacle…

Does anybody care about science for its own sake anymore?