A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is there a face on Mars?

December 12, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

Is there a "face on mars"?


But what the heck, let's go into a little more detail.

The timing here is pretty good. The November/December 2000 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features a cover story on this very topic. (In fact, I encourage everybody to go out and buy a copy, then write in to tell the editors how much you enjoyed the book review of the Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, which has nothing to do with this answer, but, hey, if I can't use these Staff Reports for a plug now and then, what good are they?) You can read the article about the Face at members.aol.com/garypos2/Hoagland.html. Much of it deals specifically with Face promoter Richard Hoagland, who discussed the Face and related topics in his 1987 book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever.

If your question had asked if there is an old photo of Mars that, when run through a computer for digital enhancement, has something that looks like a face on it, then the answer would be "yes." In fact, you can find the series of enhancements here: www.skeptics.com.au/featu res/gallery/space/face4.htm.

Looks interesting, yes? Well, hold on a second. The late Carl Sagan noted in The Demon-Haunted World (a book that should be required reading in all of our high schools, incidentally), "If we study the original image more carefully, we find that a strategically placed 'nostril'--one that adds much to the impression of a face--is in fact a black dot corresponding to lost data in the radio transmission from Mars to Earth. The best picture of the Face shows one side lit by the Sun, the other in deep shadow. Using the original data, we can severely enhance the contrasts in the shadows. When we do, we find something rather unfacelike there. The Face is at best half a face. Despite our shortness of breath and the beating of our hearts, the Martian sphinx looks natural--not artificial, not a dead ringer for a human face. It was probably sculpted by slow geological processes over millions of years."

So is the appearance just caused by the computer enhancement? Well, not entirely. Sagan also noted that there is a tendency for people to see faces in tortillas, clouds, cinnamon buns, etc., which he thought was an evolutionary trait. He might have mentioned the moon, too. Heck, there was a case where I live in which people even thought they saw a face in a tree; see www.sj-r.com/news/99/09/03/ and www.sj-r.com/news/99/09/04/a.htm.

OK, you're saying, maybe we do have a tendency to find faces where none exist, but that doesn't prove this isn't a real face. Right, but this does: www.csicop.org/articles/face-on-mars/index2.html. This photo, which was taken in 1998 by the Mars Global Surveyor, shows the same geological formation seen in the Face photos. The resolution obviously is much better, and guess what? No face.

In case you still doubt that humans tend to find patterns where there are none, take a look at these photos from Mars: members.aol.com/tbskep/Mars_morefaces.html.

Clearly, aliens are trying to tell us something with the happy face, Ted Kennedy, and Kermit the Frog. I leave it to you to sort out those mysteries, though. I can only tackle one per Staff Report.

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