Ever stare up at the clouds and imagine that they were taking various shapes? Maybe you saw a pirate ship, or an elephant, or even something as mundane as a kitchen sink. Well, astronomers do that, too, whether they are looking at clouds, stars or planetary dirt. I'm not just talking about the constellations.
This week, we've been treated to a lovely view of the Lambda Centauri nebula from the European Southern Observatory. When I first saw the release, however, it referred to the popular game "Angry Birds" in the title. I cocked my head to the side and looked at the nebula again. Angry bird? Where? Finally, I thought I saw a chicken in the nebula or at least its head. After that, it couldn't be unseen.
I laughed and called my office mate over to see it. She also cocked her head to the side as she tried to find the chicken. I pointed it out, but she was skeptical. Neither of us got the "Angry Birds" connection, though, or why some people called it the "Running Chicken Nebula."
A few days later, Universe Today writer, editor and overall sky deity Fraser Cain posted the following image on Facebook to convince someone that there really was a chicken in the nebula.
What?! Another chicken!? And this one isn't running either. Turns out, the ESO set up a Flickr photo collection for everyone to post their version of the chicken or Angry Bird in the nebula. And now, thanks to several submissions there, I finally see the Angry Bird … and can't unsee it. What the heck is going on here, really?
I think it is safe to say that we are not seeing hints of a fowl conspiracy in our midst. We are all experiencing a real phenomenon known as pareidolia, or the brain's ability to interpret randomness as having a significant pattern.
We are really good at this with human faces, probably because the ability to recognize and read faces within our community was important for our development as a species. It also helps to err on the side of caution if you want to be able to detect a tiger lurking in the bushes or an angry bird hurtling toward your blocky house.
The most famous case of pareidolia in space is the "Face on Mars," first photographed by the Viking orbiter in 1976. This image launched many conspiracy theories about NASA hiding evidence of alien civilizations, but more detailed pictures of the region at different times of the day by the Mars Global Surveyor show the region for what it is, a rocky outcrop.
And that's not the only face that Mars has! Why, Mars has at least one smiley face and several hearts. Many gaseous nebulae in the sky are named after the patterns we see in them, such as the Eskimo Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, a cosmic hand and, yes, even some unmentionable things. (Astronomers enjoy base humor just like the next person.)
This same pareidolia lets you see a unicorn in the clouds of Earth or a face in the wood grain of your door. No, there really isn't someone watching through your door or a bird flinging itself through space; it's just your brain getting a little overzealous. But that only adds to the fun.