The worm, turned

By Phil Plait | October 9, 2007 9:14 pm

Sometimes, it’s OK to say that some claims are just plain dumb.

Case in point: on Hoagland’s website, it is claimed that there is a giant glass worm lying on the surface of Mars.

If you have not heard this claim before, I will let you take a moment to breathe in the ridiculosity of this. Yes, a worm. And not a regular sized worm, but a giant one. And not made of, say, protoplasm, but glass. Now, to be fair, they use the word "worm" as an analogy. Sometimes. Of course, with Hoagland, it’s hard to tell if he’s being serious or not, because everything on his site is so silly.

In the link above I pretty thoroughly debunk this silliness. But of course the Worm lives on in crank websites and in the hearts and minds of pareidolia-stricken conspiracy theorists everywhere. They still claim it’s real, and it’s a worm. Or, at least, it’s a raised feature on Mars and not a gully.

The thing is, truth has a way of being persistent. When you get better data, the lies fall away and the truth remains.

Which brings us to the HiRISE images in a crater just south of Parana Basin on Mars. Take a look:

It’s clear that this is the same kind of feature claimed on Hoagland’s site to be a raised tunnel/worm. Problem is, it’s a gully. From the technical info for the image, it can be determined that the sunlight is coming from just clockwise of the left hand side (the subsolar azimuth — the point on the ground which is directly below the Sun — is 212 degrees around clockwise from the line defined by the center of the image and the center of the right hand edge… in other words, the Sun is coming from just above the left hand side). Using this, we can see from the shadows that this is a gully for sure. It’s not a raised feature, it’s a depression carved into the surface.

Now, The Claimed Worm is ridged, and the ridges are supposed to be raised features, like ribs on a tent. In my debunking I said these were dunes, carved by wind entrained in the gully. This was poopooed on Hoagland’s site, again as I outline in my debunking page. The original MGS images were fuzzy, but not so for HiRISE with its keen eye.

Let’s zoom in on the upper right side of this gully:

Hmmm. Those are definitely long, thin, raised features, irregular, yet spaced at somewhat well-defined intervals. That sounds like dunes to me.


However, as Ron Nicks (a self-proclaimed geologist and author of that "analysis" on Hoagland’s page) said:

Now do you understand why I never seriously considered “sand dunes” as any kind of scientific explanation for this remarkable tube-like feature – with its equally remarkable “supporting rings?”

Sure, I understand why– he’s not interested in accuracy. If he were, why would he be affiliated with Hoagland?

Duh again.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth debunking some of this stuff. I mean sure, shooting fish in a barrel has its appeal, but after a while the limited thrills dull. And the thing is, I have a very, very large gun. It’s called science. But it’s also called truth, and reason, and reality.

But still, sometimes the best reply is simply, "duh".


Comments (53)

  1. Dave Hall

    Oh, man! I guess there is no chance of baiting a huge hook and going fishing for Pisces!

  2. Impium Orexis

    After a while, other people who are less burnt out will take up the battle. The better the case you make now, the better it will be in the future against these and similiar fantasies.

  3. Cameron

    Great debunking as usual!

    Off-subject, but who else here is amazed by those HiRISE images? Honestly, when you click on the ultra-high resolution image, and your monitor fills up with a perfectly clear image of another planet’s surface, HOW COOL IS THAT?!

  4. Nick Theodorakis

    “Sandworms. You hate ’em right? I hate ’em myself!”


  5. spacenaut

    Also if valley is supposed to be raised tube the shadows on the craters around it make them all domed features.



  6. jick

    OMG what are u talking about, that’s Leto Atreides II!



  7. Gary

    I was hoping some new pictures of the “worms” would be taken! I remember looking at them a while back, I think on a website saying that they were evidence of something similar to a subway, and I soon figured out they were sand dunes. But these new pictures make their true identity wonderfully obvious.

    I find the number of craters visible in the high resolution picture to be striking as well. There must be thousands of craters. I’d imagine Earth would look similar if it had an atmosphere as thin as Mars does. On Earth, meteor impacts large enough to make a crater are rare, but they are observed with incredible frequency on Mars, even with enough wind to make dunes. Impacts must occur quite often.

  8. tacitus

    Seems the internet is backfiring a little on old Hoagland, if the lack of new material on his web site is any indication. He’s hardly added anything new in years, and he even abandoned his short-lived blog two years ago. The last post has over 2500 comments and takes about 10 minutes to open, so it’s not for want of an audience!)

    He seems to have gone back to the old media for most of his output these days. When he’s on the radio and publishing books, he can have a clear run without all that pesky debunking that goes on, you know, like here for example. For all intents and purposes his the new bits of his web site is content free — i.e. no more free content! If you want to get it, you have to pay for it first, by buying the latest book or going to the latest woowoo conference.

    So it’s not surprising we don’t hear much from him these days. In past years, the latest Iapetus encounter would have had him waxing lyrical about all the wonder artifacts he’s discovered in the photoset. Not any more.

  9. If you’re looking for a cloud in the shape of a camel, you’ll find one.

  10. smapdi

    Thank you jick. Someone had to say it.
    And now we have a reason to go to Mars.

  11. Zoot

    The bizarre thing is that going to mars wouldn’t help. The Euro space people took great images of the so called face on mars from several angles, but that seems to have done nothing.

    If hoof beats on the street is likely to be a horse, some people will decide immediately that it’s a rainbow colored unicorn, and then refuse stubbornly to turn around and see what actually there.

    Instead they go on a speaking tour telling everyone about the rainbow colored unicorn.

    Others are worse than Hoagland though. Like Kent Hovind (a.k.a the great anus).

    [OT rant on Hovind follows]
    The bastard has made the following claims:
    Animals do no change beyond the scope of their “kind”. Bears will not evolve into dogs etc.
    Dinosaurs are just lizards that grew big because of the oxygen saturated atmosphere.
    Ergo, the potential exists in every gecko to become a brontosaurus.

    Well damn Kent, put some lizards in an oxygen saturated terrarium and see what happens! Don’t build the museum first. Don’t start out with the speaking tour. Simple rule: First research, then proclaim.

  12. “No! The Bad Astronomer is lying! Turn your head upside down on the new picture, and see, IT’S ALSO A HUGE WORM! And it’s zigzagging to dodge those zits…”

    Actually, I second “Impium Orexis”. All the old warriors get tired of battle some time, and the new ones take over. I’m currently all fired up for battling the creationists, I’m very curious how long my motivation will last me. 😉 If I get only a year, I’ll make it a good year, and hopefully have a number of people taking up the slack when I retire.

  13. Mark

    You’re all wrong! 😉 The giant worms have all gone underground into those caves we just found! And these new images are of the TRACKS they left behind! LOL

  14. JackC

    On Ray Girvan’s site with the stereo images, I see an interesting effect – just wonder if anyone else sees it.

    I find the “Relaxed eye stereopair” to be the easiest to see – and when you do , it really jumps out at you.

    But I thought I would try the “Crossed Eye Stereopair” as well – and when I finally get it to snap in – probably using the “wrong” eye method – I see the image, but completely inverted – that is, those things that are lowest actually “apear” to me to be highest – it is as if I am looking into a negative cast of the landscape. It looks to me as if I am looking down into a depression on a ridged peak!

    It is really weird – and really obvious – and my eyes are really odd sometimes, but it is kind of an interesting inverted view of reality.

    Heck – “inverted” probably isn’t even the right word.


  15. Jarno

    Great images – I wonder whether the human brain’s implicit assumptions about the direction of shadows to make out depressions rather than bulges (or the other way around) is at work here.

    Because when I first looked at those images, my brain was definitely telling me that the “worm” was a raised feature… until I tilted my head 90 degrees, looking at the picture from that angle, and suddenly it was CLEARLY a gully.

    After my mind had established that, I could turn my head back up, and see the image as the gully it is.

    So perhaps a simpler way to debunk the claim would be to tilt the image 90 degrees, to take away the simple visual illusion, in case I’m not the only one who’s brain played that particular trick. :)

  16. KaiYeves

    Internet, noun. Syn: web, net, insane asylum.

  17. Will

    Looks like a series of tubes, so it must be the martian internets!

  18. John

    You’re not giving Hoagland enough credit in your analysis. As Jick alluded to, look carefully at the discolorations to either side of the worm carcass. It is clearly a spice deposit!

  19. MO Man

    Why is everyone overlooking the single most important thing….shame on you, BA…that today is Julia Sweeney’s 48th birthday? How cold. How unfeeling. How sad. Well, JS, not all of us have forgotten you!

  20. I have to say, it *still* really looks like a raised feature to me. If I turn my head to the side and blur my eyes at it for a minute, I can definitely see it’s a gully. Look at it right side up again, and I have to consciously tell myself that the dark part goes down, not up.

  21. So Shai Hulud still roams Mars? Maybe we should prospect for spice on our neighbour planet?

  22. Michelle

    I gotta step away from all the silliness of Hoagland and say that this image is plain kickin’. It’s really cool.

    But now watch them deny it is the same feature as the fuzzy one and make up a story. Be careful, if there’s JPG compression he might also see a city around the gully.

    Could be the martian sewer system!

  23. DennyMo

    “That sounds like dunes to me.”

    Jeez, BA, you answered your own question, just forgot to capitalize the “D”, and added an extra “s”. (Or, adapting the famous line from Hawkeye Pierce, “Gee, Frank, you’re only off by two letters.”) Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought of Dune while reading this posting.

  24. sirjonsnow

    BA, why no duplicates of the pics, but flipped so that the craters are craters and to see the “worms” as depressions?

  25. Tom

    “And the thing is, I have a very, very large gun. It’s called science. But it’s also called truth, and reason, and reality.”

    Anyone else flash to a Snow Crash quote when they read this?

    “Everybody listens to Reason.”

  26. Tommie Lindgren

    Great post! But debunking silliness aside, on Earth gullies are formed exclusively by water. Is this one? I assume the dunes have formed once it dryed up?

  27. Byron Servies

    In the second image (the HiRISE image), if the sun is coming from the left, why is there a shadow on the left of the ridge and not on the right? Or have I mis-understood what you are saying there?

  28. Clearly it is a tentacle mark from the Great Cthulhu, dragging his Unholy Tentacles across Mars, scouring it of life.

  29. assume the dunes have formed once it dryed up?

    Dunes can form under water as well, but in the windy atmosphere of Mars, one can probably assume that any dune so formed would long ago have shifted/blown away.

  30. ABR

    “Sandworms. You hate ‘em right? I hate ‘em myself!”

    I loved the Beetlejuice reference in the midst of all the Dune comments. Thanks, Nick!

  31. Irishman

    Byron, the HiRISE image shows an S shaped gully. The ridge is the wall of the gully. The shadow lies along the gully wall, on the side closest to the sun, like any gully.

    To be fair to the Hoaglandites, most descriptions I heard were of glass tubes, like a subway system or maybe pressurized domed roadway. “Worm” was a descriptive term, fairly metaphorical.

    Cameron, very cool!

  32. Byron Servies

    Irishman, thanks. In the reduced resolution image on this page it appeared to me that the gully was a ridge, which would have a different shadow. Looking at the actual HiRISE image, it is clearly a gully and the shadow now makes sense to me.

  33. Doc

    They’re not gullies. They’re scratch marks made by a noodly appendage.

  34. Mosignor Henry Clay

    They call me Dr. Worm, good morning how are you? I’m Dr. Worm. I’m interested in things, I’m not a real doctor but I am a real gully, I am an actual gully. I live on Mars…

  35. I think you need to quit shooting fish in a barrel… Go the Mythbusters route and start throwing in some M-80s and a 2 gallon container of gasoline!

  36. blf

    It you rotate the image 180 degrees, the craters clearly are craters, the S-shaped “worm” is clearly a depression, and the ridges inside the “worm” are clearly raised features (e.g., dunes). Alternatively, negating the image also removes the illusion of a raised “worm” surrounded by raised mounds.

    Rotating the image 90 degrees (either clockwise or counterclockwise (anticlockwise)) also makes this rather clear, but not, initially at least (for me), as a 180 degree rotation.

    Why do some people, such as myself, see the original not-rotated image as showing raised mounds and the raised “worm” (unless we(? I?) really concentrate — and even then, it’s not as clear as a 180 degree rotation)?

  37. Thomas Siefert

    Looks more like the veins on people in “Scanners” just before their head pops.

  38. Changcho

    Hoagland is taking Frank Herbert *way* too seriously! But then again, it is Hoagland.

  39. A couple of people already beat to this one but what the hell. That is clearly a gaint sand worm. Future Astronaut training will have to include a course on walking without rythme. Now lets get some people up there ASAP to harvest the spice.

  40. RamblinDude

    I looked at it for about 5 minutes before I saw it as a depression. And now it’s so obvious that I can’t get it to look raised again.

    That such a complete reversal in perception is possible is amazing, and certainly the truth is obvious–the Martians are deploying some sinister mind control technology and Hoagland and his group have found a way of defeating it!!

  41. Just Al

    In regards to several people’s questions, I think there may be two things at work in this optical illusion of the “ridge.”

    The first is what we expect from light. The landscape to the right of the feature is lighter than the landscape to the left, a little bit brighter in the image. Because we’re used to artificial light sources, we’re used to this meaning that the right side of the image is closer to the light source – thus the light must be from the right. Boom, you have a ridge instead of a gully. This explains why, in a negative image of the same feature, the ridge vanishes.

    Another factor may be from any experience with aerial photography, at least to those in the northern hemisphere. In virtually all cases, such photos are oriented with north to the top of the image, and the sun will almost always be from a lower quadrant, somewhere south of the features it shines on, and shadows will point, at least a little bit, northward. In this image the sun is actually slightly north of the feature casting a shadow slightly south (but mostly east) – all this is going on a gross assumption that north is towards the top of the image, simply because that’s what we’re used to. Rotate the image 90 degrees counter-clockwise puts the sun down south and we’re happy again.

    Which would mean that people from the southern hemisphere, at least those used to looking at aerial photos, would have fewer problems seeing this as a gully in its present orientation. Anyone from south of the equator want to chime in?

  42. KaiYeves

    No, RamblingDude, RCH is obviously messing with our minds via his Sith powers. 😉

  43. Mags

    I think NASA plays with our minds……it is HARD to see most images, they do appear as ridges to me, BUT then they appear as gullys. I have always had this problem with NASA images. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the processing does this. Al gives a nice explantation. I still love to see the images.And Hoagland makes me think. Gotta love it!

  44. linca

    A youtube video on how we are naturally bad at interpreting concavity and convexity, given the proper signals…

  45. Birnam Wood

    “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one,” they said. “But still they come.”
    It’s obvious that the Bene Gesserit are turning Mars into another Arrakis.

  46. Ive inverted the image in photoshop, so light seems to be coming the opposite direction,

    please take a look at the image

    Odd how those millions of odd ‘blisters’ on the surface of mars suddenly become the familiar craters… :)

  47. Nigel Depledge

    Bryan said:
    “If you’re looking for a cloud in the shape of a camel, you’ll find one.”

    Hmmm . . . ’tis backed like a camel . . .

    Seriously, did no-one else get the Shakespearian reference?

  48. Don’t you realize that you are responding exactly as this lunatic wants you to? Look at all the wasted time he has caused you. It’s the same sort of thing that the guy who makes the prediction about Mars showing up as big as the moon.

    I prefer to ignore him, or at least get a laugh at it. He is so childish…

  49. Buzz Parsec

    Hoagland wants me to think about Dune, Beetlejuice, paredoilia and Hamlet? Arrgghh! I am but mad north by northwest, when the wind is from the south I know a hawk from a handsaw. (The footnotes always say this refers to a mason’s or plasterer’s hawk, but how do they know Billy S. wasn’t talking about a bird? That’s probably why he flunked that course in the Asimov story.)

  50. John D Cole

    Why Does This Artifact Have To Be A Glass Worm.Why Can’t It Be A Skeletal Structure?We Do Have Mummies Here On Earth You Know.They Have Been Documented As Glass Worms But Why Not Skeletal Remains Of Creatures That Lived Long Ago?I Find It Interesting That All Scientists Use Earth Physics To Explain The Rest OfThe Universe.Hello!!!Physics On Mars Will Not Be Physics On Venus Will Not Be Physics On Jupiter As Each Planet Will Have Different Gravity,Atmospheres,Climates,Daytime,Nighttime,Seasons.It’s Not Going To Be What We Are Accustomed To It’s Going To Be What’s Applicable To The Planet In Question.You Might Have A PHD But You Need To Get A Little Education From The School Of Hard Knocks.


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