On May 7, 2022, the Mast Camera (Mastcam) aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover captured a photo that appeared to show a doorway carved into Martian rock.
At first sight, the image of Curiosity is completely convincing. At second glance, maybe not. The passage appears to only advance a short distance before the steeply sloping roof meets the ground.
And then these NASA killjoys tell us that he’s only about 45cm tall. Yet, who said that Martians had to be the same size as us?
But then geologists point out that multiple straight-line fractures can be seen at this site, and the “gateway” is where they intersect.
What a pity. It would have been so exciting if it had been a real door.
Instead, it joins the face on Mars, the spoon on Mars, the cube on the Moon, and all the other things seen in photos from space that turn out not to be as exciting as we thought.
faces in the clouds
Worse still, the ‘gateway’ joins the even longer list of goofy images like cornflake that looks like Australia and the like. And who hasn’t seen a face in the clouds?
The sad fact is that when presented with an unclear or unfamiliar image, humans try to turn it into a familiar-looking object. Scientists call our tendency to do this pareidolia.
It is easy to understand why this happens. We probably developed this tendency because spotting important things like predators or faces, even when the light was dim or they were partially obscured, gave us an advantage.
And getting false positives – seeing a predator where there is none – is better than not seeing a predator that then eats you.
No sign of life
Reasonable explanations won’t deter conspiracy theorists who say the gate really is proof of life on Mars and argue that scientists are engaged in some kind of cover-up.
If I was trying to make a cover, I wouldn’t post the pictures! A conspiracy therefore seems unlikely.
But there’s also a lesson here for serious seekers of extraterrestrial life. As astronomer Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
By this maxim, scientists looking for evidence of 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 have found nothing.
It’s still possible that there was once life on Mars. We can still find fossilized relics of ancient cellular life. But suddenly finding an artifact such as a door or a spoon seems unlikely.
A bigger picture
There is a similar story with the broader search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).
For years SETI scientists have searched the skies for signals from other civilizations, but so far we have found nothing.
But almost all of our searches have focused on the nearest few stars, and so, in a sense, the search has barely begun.
Meanwhile, we continue to be bombarded with photos claiming to show UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) or UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena).
The vast majority of these photos are likely fake or erroneous photos of familiar objects such as weather balloons.
But as scientists, we have to keep an open mind. Among the trash, there might be a photo or two or two that could really expand our current knowledge.
The problem is that if someone presents me with a picture claiming to show a flying saucer, I know there’s a good chance it’s fake, and so I’m likely to reject it rather than waste my time on it. consider carefully. But what if I’m wrong?
Similarly, when we see a door, a face, or a spoon on Mars, it’s too easy to brush it off.
But we must remain alert to the possibility that one day we will find archaeological evidence of past life on Mars.
Admittedly, that seems highly unlikely. But not impossible. It would be a terrible loss if, among all our painstaking research into the data, we missed the thing we were looking for because it was too easily dismissed as a trick of the light.
Author: Professor Ray Norrisresearcher at the University of Western Sydney.
This article was originally published on The conversation.