For the past ten years, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been orbiting the surface of Mars, taking pictures in an effort to understand the history and geology of the red planet and perhaps even find signs of life.
Last week he took a photo that appeared to show a door carved into the rock. It is something on Earth that may indicate an underground shelter, such as an air raid shelter.
Seeing is not always faith
At first glance, the picture is absolutely convincing. At second glance, maybe not. The passage seems to go a short way before the steeply sloping roof meets the floor.
And then these killjoys at NASA tell us they are only about 45 inches tall. However, who said that the Martians had to be the same height as us? But thenGeologists point out that many straight fractures can be seen at this location and the “door” is where they happen to intersect.
What a shame. It would be so exciting if it was a real door. Instead, it unites the face on Mars, the spoon on Mars, the cube on the Moon and all the other things seen in space photos that prove to be not as exciting as we thought.
Faces in the clouds
Worse still, the “door” is on the even bigger list of eccentric images, such as the cornflake that looks like Australia, the cats that look like Hitler, and so on. And who has not seen a face in the clouds?
The sad fact is that when presented with a vague or unknown image, people try to turn it into a familiar object. Scientists call our tendency to do this “paradox”.
It is easy to understand why this happens. We probably developed this tendency because locating important things like predators or faces, even when the light is poor or partly dark, has given us an advantage. And to take false positives – to see a predator where it does not exist – is better than not to see a predator that then eats you.
No sign of life
Reasonable explanations will not deter conspiracy theorists from saying that the door is really proof of life on Mars and that scientists are working on some kind of cover-up.
If I was trying to hide, I would not take the photos! So a conspiracy does not seem very likely.
But there is also a lesson here for serious extraterrestrial researchers. According to astronomer Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require exceptional evidence.
Following this axiom, scientists looking for evidence for extraterrestrial life require much stronger evidence than, say, someone looking for a geological formation. And despite decades of searching for evidence of life on Mars, we found nothing.
It is still possible that there was once life on Mars. We can even find some fossilized remains of ancient cell life. But suddenly finding an object like a door or a spoon seems unlikely.
The bigger picture
There is a similar story to the wider search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). For years, SETI scientists have been searching the skies for signals from other cultures, but so far we have found nothing. But almost all of our searches have been done with the nearest stars, and so in a sense the search has just begun.
Meanwhile, we continue to be bombarded with photos that supposedly show UFO (Unidentified Flying Objects) or UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena).
The vast majority of these photos are probably fake or inaccurate photos of familiar objects, such as weather balloons. But as scientists, we must have an open mind. Among the rubbish, there may be one or two photos or videos that could really enhance our current knowledge.
The problem is that if someone shows me a photo that is supposed to show a flying saucer, I know that the odds are very high that it is fake, so I’ll probably dismiss it instead of wasting my time looking at it carefully. But suppose I’m wrong?
Similarly, when we see a door, or a face or a spoon, on Mars, it is very easy to reject it. But we must remain vigilant about the possibility that one day we may find archeological evidence for a previous life on Mars.
Admittedly, this seems very unlikely. But not impossible. It would be a terrible loss if, in the midst of all our careful data search, we lost what we were looking for, because it was so easily rejected as a trick of light.
(Author: Ray Norris, Professor, School of Science, University of Western Sydney)
Disclosure statement: Ray Norris does not work, advise, own shares or receive funding from any company or organization that will benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relationships beyond their academic appointment.
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