July 25

The Face on Mars


You weren’t fooled in 1976.  When the Mars photographs came back from Viking 1, an image of the Cydonia region included what some gullible members of the public interpreted as a human-like face.

Evidence of life! they said.  Remnants of an ancient Martian city, with a sculpted humanoid head facing their alien sky.  Two eyes, the ridge of a nose, a thin-lipped mouth.  And a dotted ridge along the scalp, to indicate the hair line.  Perfectly symmetrical and, in fact, nearly duplicating the standard guidelines a student artist would encounter when learning to draw a human face.

They’re like us!  They know about us!  They left this monument for us to discover!

Well, such folly was understandable.  Segments of the population wanted to believe in extra-terrestrial life, and a photograph — even a low-resolution photograph with obscuring shadows — seemed a welcome piece of evidence.

But you weren’t fooled.   Alien life might be possible, you’d thought at the time, but it would hardly take a humanoid shape.  More likely, the gravitational and atmospheric demands of another planet, the random branches of alien evolution, would produce creatures altogether different — with eyes in different places, if they needed eyes at all; and, instead of arms and legs, with a strange configuration of appendages that had better things to do than sculpt masses of Martian stone into a giant Halloween mask.

The phenomena is called pareidolia  — when the mind imposes a familiar pattern onto an image where that pattern doesn’t actually exist.  It’s like the childhood activity-book game,  connecting a coherent picture out of a collection of random dots.

Even as you mocked your peers’ mistake about the Mars photograph, you understood the impulse.  Humans are used to looking in mirrors.  We find faces in wood grain, in an oddly burnt slice of toast, and it somehow seems to validate our importance on our own tiny dot:  this Earth, insignificant in the vastness of space.

And now you’ve succumbed to the same folly.  The aliens arrived, from whatever distant solar system, and you’ve wanted so badly for them to have some connection to human qualities.  As photographs and videos broadcast their atrocities, you’ve fallen into that fallacy of pareidolia — searching images of their jellied bodies for familiar holes or ridges, trying to find a voice in the gurgling bubbles of their rolling skin, a trace of gentleness or humanity in the tendrils that aim strange weapons into your planet’s dwindling atmosphere.