Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Pareidolia? No way, that really is a smiley face

Image: Mars Global Surveyor (1999), NASA.


I had a great time at the Tour of the Planets conference over the weekend. Life being what it is (having to coach netball on the Saturday) meant I only arrived fifteen minutes before I was due to go on, but my Wandering planets and the seven-day week talk went off okay, even if I had to wing it a bit when discussing "Sunday" as I'd lost my notes for that particular slide. 

I had a bit of friendly heckling from a couple of astronomers sitting off to the side of the lecture hall (Richard Hall and Ian Cooper - you know who you are), who reminded me of the two old guys out of the Muppets, and I told them so at the time. I also had a native Greek speaker (George Moutzouris) sitting in the front row, when, as my luck would have it, my talk was littered with unpronounceable Greek names - which I proceeded to murder in traditional Kiwi fashion. But, far from being a problem, the audience participation in the talk only served to make it more interesting and dynamic, and at least I knew they were listening (unlike the chap right down the back who definitely had his eyes shut). Would I do it again? Absolutely! Getting people clapping after you talk is a powerful endorsement. I felt pretty good afterwards, especially when a few people cornered me at the tea table later and wanted copies of the slides.

I managed to catch a couple of talks after mine, I especially loved a talk by Richard Hall on the Martian Chronicles. At one point he was talking about pareidolia, a human need to see pattern in random data, the reason why we see faces in things like clouds and trees etc. He had a series of quite famous photos of the Martian surface which showed images that we have identified as having "things" in them - like a woman sitting on a rock, hearts, a finger, Mickey Mouse, WWII helmets, faces, etc. 
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS file

He showed an image of Mars' Galle crater which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Made me smile, I can tell you. If there is a supreme being - they have a sense of humour.