For the past ten years, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been orbiting the surface of Mars, taking photos to understand the history and geology of the Red Planet, and perhaps finding signs of life.
Last week it took a photo that shows a door carved in stone. This is something that could point to an underground bunker on Earth, like an air strike shelter.
Seeing is not always believing
At first glance, the picture is completely believable. In the second vision, maybe not. The passage seems to go a short way before the steep lower roof meets the floor.
And then those NASA keys tell us that it is only 45 centimeters high. Yet, who says Martians should be the same height as us? But ThenGeologists have noted that several straight-line fractures can be seen at this site and the “doorway” where they intersect.
Such a pity. It would be so exciting if it was a real door. Instead it’s the face of Mars, the spoon of Mars, the cube of the moon and everything else seen in the photos from space that is not as exciting as we thought.
Face in the clouds
Worst of all, “Doorway” joins a much longer list of bizarre images of cornflakes that look like Australia, cats that look like Hitler, and more. And who has not seen the face of the cloud?
The sad truth is that when presented with a vague or unfamiliar image, people try to turn it into a familiar-looking object. Scientists call this tendency “peridolia”.
It is easy to understand why this happens. We’ve probably developed this tendency because identifying important objects, such as predators or mouths, gives us an advantage, even when the light is dim or they are partially dim. And finding false positives – where there is no one to see a predator – is better than seeing a predator that then you do not eat.
There is no sign of life
Rational explanations will not deter conspiracy theorists who say that the door is indeed evidence of life on Mars, and maintain that scientists are somehow secretly employed.
If I was trying to make a cover up, I wouldn’t publish the photos! So a conspiracy doesn’t seem very possible.
But there is also a lesson here for those who are serious about alien life. As astronomer Carl Sagan puts it, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Following this maxim, scientists claim much stronger evidence than those looking for geological formations. And after decades of searching for evidence of life on Mars, we found nothing.
It is still possible that there may be life once on Mars. We can still find some fossil remains of ancient cellular life. But suddenly it seems impossible to find any antiquities like doors or spoons.
There is a similar story with the extensive search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). For years, SETI scientists have been searching the sky for signs of other civilizations, but so far we have found nothing. But almost all of our searches have been on the nearest few stars, and so in a sense the search has rarely begun.
In the meantime, we continue to bombard with images to show UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) or UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena).
Most of these photos are probably fake, or incorrect photos of familiar objects, such as weather balloons. But as scientists we have to keep an open mind. In the trash, there may be one or two photos or videos that can really expand our current knowledge.
The problem is that if someone presents me a photo to show me a flying saucer, I know that the odds are against it being fake, and so I can examine it carefully and dismiss it instead of wasting my time. But suppose I’m wrong?
Similarly, when we see a door, or a face, or a spoon on Mars, it is very easy to dismiss it. But we must be careful that one day we can find archeological evidence of past life on Mars.
Of course, this seems very unlikely. But not impossible. It would be a terrible loss if, in all our careful search through data, we miss the thing we were looking for because it was so easily dismissed as a light technique.
(Author: Ray Norris, Professor, School of Science, Western Sydney University)
Statement: Ray Norris does not work for, consult, share or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and did not disclose any relevant relationship outside of their academic appointments.
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