The Universe in the Classroom

The Face on Mars

Is the Face Real?

Certainly the rock outcropping on Mars is suggestive of a human face. But that doesn't mean it is a monument deliberately constructed to look like a face. According to psychologists, the human visual system is organized to look for familiar features in random patterns. And there is a particularly strong human tendency to see faces given minimal details. For example, people all over the world see the face of a man when they look at the Moon (others see a rabbit in the Moon). We see animals and human faces in clouds. In New Hampshire, the face of the "Old Man of the Mountain'' gazes impassively out from the side of a cliff. If you look on the left and right sides of the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, you can see the faces of two people arguing with one another. We've all seen people in the news or on TV talk shows who have found vegetables or potato chips that look like famous people. Another Viking image shows a Martian crater with what looks like a smiling "happy face'' inside. No one thinks any of these were deliberately created, so why should the Face on Mars be any different?

What about the "pyramids'' near the Face on Mars? There are a number of small mountains on Mars that resemble pyramids, both in Cydonia and another region called Elysium. Geologists who specialize in desert landscapes are quite familiar with similar wind-sculpted formations here on Earth, for example, in the deserts of Arizona. The "city'' on Mars is a cluster of these pyramid-shaped mountains, the biggest a few kilometers at the base, all oriented in the same direction. Carl Sagan has noted that similar formations, called dreikanters, from a German word meaning three sides, are seen in Antarctica. Strong winds blowing from mostly the same direction over many years turn what were once irregular bumps into nicely symmetrical pyramids. Dreikanters are small, only about knee-high, while the Martian "pyramids'' are much taller. But winds on Mars are much fiercer than those on Earth, with wind speeds that can reach half the speed of sound, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that dust storms blown by these strong winds could sculpt larger versions of dreikanters.

Several of the Martian "pyramids'' appear highly eroded, and distinctly non-symmetrical. Proponents of the Face on Mars suggest that they were "damaged,'' perhaps during some kind of Martian war. Skeptics take this as further evidence that wind erosion produced the structures. The Cydonia region of Mars is dotted with many low hills that have been molded into odd shapes, perhaps by a combination of ancient mudflows and wind erosion. The Face on Mars seems to have been created in the same way as these features, even though they don't look like anything in particular.

The original Viking photograph of the Face on Mars is riddled with black dots. These dots correspond to areas where data was lost during the transmission of the picture from the Viking orbiter to Earth (such transmission losses are common given the problems of communicating with spacecraft over interplanetary distances). If we look carefully at the original image, we see that a black dot of lost data happens to fall right about where we would expect to see a "nostril'' on the Face. This makes the rock look even more like a face, but doesn't correspond to any real feature on the Martian surface.
SMILEY
OLD MAN
PYRAMIDS
This Martian impact crater looks like the largest known "Happy Face'' in the solar system. The smiling mouth and eyes were formed by fractures caused by the original meteor impact. The main crater is about eight kilometers (five miles) across. (Courtesy NASA)
The "Old Man of the Mountain'' in the White Mountains of New Hampshire looks like a face when viewed from the side. (Courtesy Dick Hamilton Photo, White Mountain News Bureau)
"Pyramids'' in the Cydonia region of Mars, were most likely sculpted by wind erosion. (Courtesy NASA)

Scientists take great care when interpreting images sent back by spacecraft. When confronted with an alien landscape, it is easy to see what you want or expect to see, not necessarily what is really there. Similar care is needed when interpreting enhanced images. There is only so much information that a picture contains. Image processing or image enhancement will bring out details that were present in the original picture, although not obvious. If you process an image too much, you run the risk that things will appear in the enhanced picture that were not present in the original; such things cannot be believed. This is an issue that astronomers constantly struggle with, given today's emphasis on electronic detectors and computer processing in astronomical research. But it is an issue that is rarely adequately addressed by proponents of the Face on Mars, who depend on enhanced images to back up some of their claims. For example, early proponents claimed to see a "honeycomb'' structure on the Martian surface, which they took to be a complex of rooms. Later, the honeycomb was shown to be an artifact of the computer image processing, and not something that was present in the original images. Still, some proponents continue to cite the honeycombs as evidence of a Martian civilization.

And what about the reported alignments of the pyramids and the Face? In order for the alignment to work, Mars' equator would have to be tilted 17.3 degrees relative to the plane of its orbit around the Sun (it is now tipped 24 degrees). It is possible that Mars at one time had such a tilt. But, in this case, there are so many possible variations, with so little to restrict them, that random chance would no doubt produce some apparent alignments. Given that proponents had the freedom to choose any of a number of solar or celestial alignments, any time since the beginning of the solar system, and to move the planet any amount to fit an alignment, the fact that one can be found is not proof that it was intended.

Hoagland has recently taken his analysis of this and other alleged alignments several steps further. He now claims that encoded within the alignments are mathematical constants that reveal information about a "new physics.'' The beings who built the Face and pyramids are trying to tell the universe about this new physics, he says, which includes the potential for an almost limitless source of energy. According to Hoagland, similar constants can be discerned in the so-called "crop circles'' that appeared in English grain fields over the past several years. Such fantastic claims test the credulity of even those who want to believe in the Face on Mars.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof

The Viking orbiters took only a few images that show the Face on Mars. The pictures are of such low resolution and poor quality that they cannot prove conclusively one way or the other whether the Face on Mars is naturally occurring or artificial. One of the guiding principles of scientists is that simple, straightforward explanations of phenomena are more likely to be correct than complicated, convoluted ones. This principle, known as Occam's razor (after the fourteenth century English philosopher, William of Occam, who first proposed it; razor is used in the sense of shaving an argument to its simplest terms), means that if two hypotheses fit the observations equally well, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be chosen.

Applying Occam's razor to the Face on Mars, we ask which is the simpler explanation: that wind erosion, over millions of years, molded a low hill into a shape that happens to resemble a human face when lit from the side, in the same way that it molded many other odd shapes in the same area; or that technologically advanced, intelligent aliens, who may or may not have looked like us and who left no other evidence of their existence, created a gigantic monument with a human face for an unknown reason? If we can explain the Face on Mars as the product of well understood geological processes that we know occur elsewhere on the planet, why do we need to invoke unknown alien beings working in an unknown way for unknown reasons to explain it? Out of the 150,000,000-square-kilometer total surface area of Mars, is it so surprising that a tiny one-square-kilometer-sized area looks a little funny?
MISS PIGGY
KERMIT
Fotla Corona, an oval-shaped volcanic feature on Venus, looks rather like the muppet Miss Piggy, minus one ear. A corona is thought to form when a large blob of hot magma rose, created a large bulge or dome in the surface and then sank, collapsing the dome and leaving a ring that looks like a "fallen souffle.'' This feature is 200 kilometers (120 miles) in diameter. The ear and eyes are actually flat-topped volcanic features called "pancake domes.''
This unusual lava flow pattern resembles the muppet Kermit the Frog. It lies on the flank of Alba Patera, a large volcano in the northern hemisphere of Mars. A small impact crater in the flow looks like an eye. (Courtesy NASA)

Mars is a fascinating planet. Its huge volcanoes dwarf those on Earth. Along its equator, a gigantic chasm stretches so far that, on Earth, it would span the entire United States. Perhaps most intriguing are what look like dry river channels that snake across the Martian deserts. Although liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars now, evidently some time in the past the atmosphere was thick enough and the temperatures warm enough for pools of water, rivers, rain and floods to scour the Martian surface. The reality of Mars is exciting enough; we don't need artificially created monuments to manufacture interest in the red planet.

We should always remain skeptical of outrageous stories like that of the Face on Mars, unless there is unquestionable evidence to back them up. Like the Rorschach ink blot tests that psychologists use to probe a person's psyche, claims about the Face on Mars tell us more about humanity's desire not to be alone in the universe than about Martian geology.

There is another region on Mars that looks like Kermit the Frog. On the planet Venus, there is a volcanic feature that resembles the face of Miss Piggy (minus one ear). Taken together, and using the same logic as proponents of the Face on Mars, these two features would seem to prove that there once was a group of intelligent aliens who traveled from planet to planet, and worshipped Muppets! Most people would agree that is just a little absurd.

<< previous page | 1 | 2 | 3 | next page >>

back to Teachers' Newsletter Main Page