Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pareidolia: Ghouls in the Carina Nebula

Pareidolia is a frequent topic of discussion (and sometimes derision) over at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy. Pareidolia is a very human tendency to perceive coherent images in randomly arrayed or naturally occurring items - so we see a big ladle or a sword-carrying giant in the stars, or a man or a rabbit in the Moon, or the image of Mary in a rust stain on concrete, or Jesus in a piece of Pita bread.

This Christmas my sister got me the calendar Heavens, subtitled Hubble: Deepest Views of Space. It's a nice calendar, though it isn't officially put out by NASA or the Hubble team or anyone else associated with the images within. It's one of the two astronomy-related calendars commonly available in bookstores, although there are several others that are more expensive and harder to find. (One of them is Terence Dickinson's Astronomy, which I managed to pick up for half price at a mall kiosk last week; I actually think the pictures in the Heavens one are nicer.) The point is, this calendar is probably gracing the homes and offices of thousands or tens of thousands of people right now. And the image shown above will be on display in those homes and offices for the next sixteen days or so. And once they notice the image of ghouls in attendance at a deathbed, the people in those homes and offices may be just a little freaked out.

Do you see it? If you're having trouble, I'll point it out to you.

UPDATE, 1/15/09: Now made explicit with labeled diagrams!

First is the corpse on the deathbed, seen in the lower right of the image. A shroud or hooded cloak covers his eyes, though his nose, mouth, and chin - all lit from behind by a heavenly light - and neck are clearly visible. The cloak appears to wrap his body below the neck.

First in attendance is the figure I call The Physician. He wears a high-collared cloak and a wide-brimmed conical hat. His eye glows with - concern? desire? anticipation? - though his mouth is held tightly shut beneath his prominent nose.

Hovering over The Physician's shoulder is The Hungry Ghoul. His face is full of malice, his eye clearly alight with delight and glee. His rotting face with its high cheekbone and pointed chin shows a leering grin full of nasty-looking teeth, ready to devour the once-living flesh as soon as it has cooled down enough. (Ghouls only eat the dead, you know.) He wears an open-collared shirt. The set of his shoulders suggests that while he is full of excited anticipation, he is also relaxed and patient.

Finally - and least distinct, because it does not fully reside on the same plane of existence as the other figures - is the female figure of The Mourner: eye shut, mouth set but slightly open, long hair falling over her left shoulder, turning away in grief. The long deathwatch is over, the Physician - himself a ghoul in disguise - has recorded the passing, and now there is nothing to be done but a funeral and burial.

It's the Carina Nebula, a beautiful and magnificent astronomical feature, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the greatest achievements of human technology. There aren't really ghouls or corpses or mourners there in the image. What really is there is much more amazing, much more wonderful. Read up on it and see.


...tom... said...


Man, it must be later than I think.

Or I am particularly unimaginative.

I see none of it..!!


hedera said...

I can sort of see the ghoul, but the rest of it - DB, you've been operating machinery too long! Gorgeous photos of the nebula, though.

...tom... said...


"but the rest of it - DB, you've been operating machinery too long!"


But I do now see a bunny/jackrabbit in this pic.

His hind legs are bent under, we see him in profile looking west/'picture left', his 'ears' are blowing in the breeze, pointing to the upper right corner.

And yes, he looks rather nerdy...

Tell me you cant see it..!!


D.B. Echo said...

Never before have I heard it suggested that working at a factory job in which microscopic attention to detail is required could possibly lead to an overactive imagination.

...tom..., I see your rabbit! In another image of this same region, the wispy line at the end of the cone on the lower left is clearly a man riding on the back of a bear, throwing a broadhead spear.

Now, can you find the TWO rabbits on the Moon? HINT: They face in opposite directions. HINT 2: One is sittling, one is leaping.

hedera said...

OK, now that you've drawn in the lines, I see what you mean. But looking at the raw photo, what I see is:

A fairly elegant ghoul face almost exactly centered in the photo (nothing like your ghoul);

Approximately where the Hungry Ghoul's ear is, a very elegant and clear image of a cat's head with its ears laid back;

What I want to see is the rabbit sittling in the moon. I've never seen a rabbit sittle before.

rebelmacaque said...

Jupiter's adenoids! Don't you see that huge hawk-spectre looming over the whole scene! Looks like he's going to eat Dolly Madison. I love pareidolia.