Back in 1976, the Viking Orbiter 1 acquired some images of the Cydonia region of Mars as part of the search for a potential landing site for the Viking Lander 2. One of the images included a shot of a region that looked remarkably similar to a face. The image was released to the public by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of their public relations effort.
Here it is:
Shortly after the images were released, some people (mostly in lay literature) argued that the face was artificially created, and that this was concrete evidence for either past or present intelligence on Mars. The rock formation looked so similar to a face – how could it not have been designed by an intelligent architect?
Some believe the face was created by Martians, others say it is a tomb, or part of an ancient city. Others believe that NASA is involved in a conspiracy to cover up the true nature of the Face – all part of a secret space program (then why would they have released the picture in the first place?).
Mac Tonnies goes so far as to say that the Face is a “genuine scientific enigma”. After NASA released new images of the Face in 1998, he claims that the “experts either don’t understand the workings of their own instruments or else feel somehow threatened by the Face’s enduring mystery.”
“Scientific enigma”, the Face is not.
Humans – all humans – have an innate ability to detect patterns out of seemingly random noise. This ability is particularly strong when it comes to faces. As David Hume once said, “There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer every object, those qualities, with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice or good will to everything, that hurts or pleases us.
This phenomenon – detecting something clear and distinct from an apparently obscure stimulus – is called “pareidolia“. Carl Sagan hypothesized that, as a survival technique, human beings are “hard-wired” from birth to identify the human face. This allows people to use only minimal details to recognize faces from a distance and in poor visibility but can also lead them to interpret random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces.
Pareidolia not only applies to the detection of faces, but also to the perception of religious imagery and themes. In 1978, a New Mexican woman found that the burn marks on her tortilla she had made appeared similar to the face of Jesus Christ. Thousands of people came to see the burnt tortilla. Do think that if Son of God wanted to be seen, he would appear on a tortilla? Or the Virgin Mary, on a grilled cheese sandwich? Wouldn’t they pick something a little more majestic?
Revisiting the Face on Mars
But first, let’s revisit the Face on Mars. Back in 1976, the imaging technology was inferior to today’s, and the resolution of the images was significantly lower. Even compared to 1998, the resolution of space images has increased dramatically. Let’s compare the Face from lowest to highest resolution:
The 1976 version sure does look like a face, and if you strain your eyes, you might still see a face in the 1998 version. But what about the 2001 version? Not so much.
Let’s look even closer at the 2001 version, just to be sure:
At the highest resolution, you need to slide the goalposts pretty wide to see a face.
So, combined with our knowledge of pareidolia, and the high resolution images provided by NASA, do you think the Face is still a face, or an optical illusion enhanced by the fact that we were originally looking at very low resolution images?
Throw in Occam’s Razor for good measure: Is it more likely that the Face is a result of an advanced Martian civilization, or the simpler choice: Low resolution images and the effect of pareidolia?
I’ll go with the simpler of the two.