February 9, 2010
Scientists have released their latest, most detailed map of the cosmic microwave background–that faint glow of radiation left over from the Big Bang–and Stephen Hawking‘s initials are still there. The S and H have been spotted in previous versions of the image, which is sometimes known as WMAP for the spacecraft that is responsible for the picture. It’s as if the universe is playing a joke on all of us, hiding the signature of one of the world’s greatest cosmologists in the radiation signature of its own birth.
But as New Scientist notes, there are plenty of other familiar things that can be seen in the image–a deer and a parrot, for example. They have even set up an interactive image so that readers can point out their own finds.
It seems that people are often finding interesting images in what looks like random noise. In the November issue of Smithsonian, Jackson Pollock biographer Henry Adams claimed that the artist’s name could be found in his groundbreaking 1943 work Mural. And who hasn’t seen familiar shapes in the clouds?
It’s the faces, though, that get the most press. You may have seen the potato chip lady visiting Johnny Carson with her collection of chips shaped like the heads of famous people such as Bob Hope and Alfred Hitchcock. There was the grilled cheese sandwich with the face of the Virgin Mary that sold on eBay for $28,000. The face on Mars. The face of Jesus in a bruise. American Express has even capitalized on our tendency to see faces in everything with their latest commercial.
A study of facial recognition from a few years ago found that when presented with images that only bear a passing resemblance to a face, the brains of macaque monkeys sometimes lit up in the same way they did when the animals saw a real face. Doris Tsao, a neuroscientist at the University of Bremen in Germany, explained to the New York Times:
“Nonface objects may have certain features that are weakly triggering these face cells,” she said. “If you go above a certain threshold, the monkeys might think that they’re seeing a face.” In the same way, she said, objects like cinnamon buns, rocky outcroppings and cloud formations may set off face radar if they bear enough resemblance to actual faces.
I wasn’t able to find any similar research into why humans find other familiar forms in the random noise of images. Perhaps it’s simply that we’re always searching for the familiar, trying to find a bit of comfort in the unknown, intimidating bits of our experience, whether its a groundbreaking piece of art or the remnants of the birth of our universe.
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