Category: illusion

Looking into Einstein's head (optical illusion)

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2012 7:00 am

Wow, it’s been forever since I’ve posted a brain-melty optical illusion, and I love me some illusions. This one is a variation on one I’ve posted before, showing how an ambiguously lit object freaks your brain out trying to figure out the lighting.

I really wish we had a show as smart and wonderful as QI here in the US. I love Stephen Fry as much as I do illusions!

Anyway, there are lots of examples of this type of illusion. Here’s one of a silhouetted figure spinning that’ll destroy you. This is also similar to the dome/crater illusion as well, where something (a crater) lit from below makes it look like an inverted object (a dome) lit from above.

I have more illusions listed in Related Posts below. Seriously, click the Blue/Green link. Oh my, that one is AWESOME. And people still argue over it in the comments, despite my complete and rock solid proof of what you’re seeing in it. Optical illusions really can mess you up.


Related Posts:

The blue and the green
You spin me right round
This video illusion will destroy your brain
Raising an impact in Africa
Sunsets are Quite Interesting
Sunsets are Fryed astronomy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Humor, illusion

The ups and downs of Saturn pictures

By Phil Plait | June 11, 2012 1:00 pm

When I look at Cassini images of Saturn — with its multitude of rings and fleet of moons — I am inspired, moved, and even awed.

And sometimes I laugh. When I saw this image, for example, I actually chuckled to myself. Why?

[Click to encronosenate.]

This gorgeous shot was taken on December 30, 2011 and released just today as the Cassini Image of the Week. It shows Saturn’s gorgeous rings seen nearly edge on, and the tiny moon Epimetheus, only 113 kilometers in diameter, next to them.

It’s a lovely image to be sure, and my very first thought was; I wonder if Epimetheus is closer to us than the rings, or farther away? If we’re looking down on the rings, from the north, then Epimetheus is closer to us. But if we’re looking up from underneath the rings, Epimetheus is on the other side of the rings. I could mentally switch my perspective back and forth, but I couldn’t tell which view is correct! This prompted my chuckle, as I wryly smiled at my brain’s confusion (I love optical illusions).

So take another look: are we looking down on the rings, or up? Hint: the Sun is shining from the north, down on the rings.

It’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? Just by looking it’s almost impossible to figure out! If you’re familiar with Cassini pictures, the rings look subtly different if they are illuminated from above and you’re looking at them from underneath, and vice-versa. But it’s hard to tell. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have known without reading the caption for the image.

The answer is we’re looking up. The Sun is shining down on the top of the rings, and we’re looking up from underneath, putting wee Epimetheus about 1.5 million kilometers (900,000 miles) from Cassini when this picture was taken. If it helps, hold up something round like a DVD and look at it from underneath. As another helpful guide: in the image above, the part of the rings at the top of the picture are closest to you, the bottom farther away, and Epimetheus father still.

And I bet that even knowing that, some of you are having a hard time picturing it. Our brains are funny things, easily fooled when there’s symmetry in a picture, especially when that picture shows an unfamiliar object. I’m sure Carolyn Porco can just glance at something like this and figure out everything she needs to understand the geometry! I’m not so sure I could’ve.

Remember: seeing isn’t always believing. It’s easy to fool our eyes and brain, but in the end the Universe knows what it’s doing.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Related Posts:

Saturn brain bender
For moons, size does matter
A little weekend Saturn awesomeness
The tiny moon with the long reach

Sunsets are Quite Interesting

By Phil Plait | November 20, 2011 7:14 am

There’s a wonderful comedic quiz show in the UK called "QI" — for "Quite Interesting" — which is hosted by none other than Stephen Fry. The participants are comedians, and they’re asked questions ranging over just about every topic you can imagine. The BBC recently uploaded a clip about which alert BA Bloggee Brett Warburton informed me. In it, Fry shows the contestants a video of the Sun setting, and asks them to ring in when they think the Sun has completely set. Here’s the clip:

This is, in fact, correct! The Earth’s air bends the image of the Sun upward, so we can still see the Sun even though it is physically below the horizon. If we didn’t have air, daytime would be shorter. In fact, this effect works for sunrise as well, so we see the Sun rise before it’s physically cleared the horizon.

And Stephen was correct in the amount too; the light is bent upward by just about the same size as the Sun, so when the lower limb of the Sun just kisses the horizon it’s actually already set.

But it’s a bit more complicated, of course. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Humor, illusion

In which I disagree with cartoon Neil Tyson

By Phil Plait | November 14, 2011 11:59 am

Last week, I was checking my feed reader, catching up on all my favorite web comics. One of them is sci-ence, a comic you really should be reading. It’s drawn (in part) by artist and science afficianado Maki Naro, and (like xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal) it’s both funny and scilicious.

I got a snicker out of the comic he had just posted, dealing with my pal Neil Tyson and the Moon. Go read it!

Back yet? OK.

Now, I know that just last night I was praising Neil, and today I have no cause to bury him. But I will nitpick a wee bit…

First, of course, who hasn’t wanted to chase Neil Tyson down the street while yelling incoherently at him? But that aside, I must point out that this explanation of the Moon Illusion, while very common, is not actually correct.

The Moon Illusion is when the rising (or setting) Moon looks huge and fat, squatting on the horizon, but appears far smaller when up high in the sky. But it’s not because you’re comparing it with foreground objects! I’ve seen this illusion when out in the open plain, with nothing between me and the horizon but Kansas farmland, which is like a geometric plane, except flatter.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Debunking, Humor, illusion, Science, Skepticism

Ba? Fa!

By Phil Plait | September 19, 2011 6:30 am

Via MadArtLab comes this amazing optical/aural illusion that you have to see and hear to believe!

Cool, isn’t it? I’ve heard (haha) of this illusion before — it’s called the McGurk effect — but it’s still fun to see it done this way. When the man is shown side-by-side saying it, switch your attention back and forth between them with each syllable. Even knowing it’s an illusion, it’s still overwhelming. I can’t not hear it.

I would venture to guess that this is related to the audio version of pareidolia; seeing patterns in random shapes. This sort of thing is why people think they hear words when songs are played backwards, but that’s completely wrong, just like seeing Elvis in a bit of reflected light. If you don’t think this is possible, then simply watch this video of Carmina Burana and prepare to laugh your head off.

As always, the lesson here is that while we think our senses give us a clear view of the world, they not only don’t, they can really screw it up. You can’t always trust your what you see or hear! In fact, you rarely can. That’s why we invented science.


Related posts:

Carmina Buraneidolia
?eb ecneicsitna nac yfoog woH
The Hallmark of a black hole
Cosmically creepy chords

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, illusion
MORE ABOUT: McGurk effect

This video illusion will destroy your brain

By Phil Plait | August 17, 2011 6:00 am

I love love love optical illusions, and it’s been a while since I posted one. So here’s one of the greatest and most brain-eatingly pernicious illusions of them all… and this time, via my friend Richard Wiseman’s blog, it’s brought to life!

Now, if you’re like me, your first thought is "Baloney!" except perhaps with stronger language.

However, I promise you, this is real. It’s not a trick, it’s not Photoshop, nothing like that*. It’s an honest to goodness optical illusion completely inside your head. I can prove it, and you can prove it for yourself.

I took a screen grab from the video:

I then opened it in Photoshop and created two squares. I filled the first one with the color sampled from the "dark" square in the screengrab, the one next to the woman’s right hand. I then did the same thing using the color sampled from the "light" square just to the right of the cylinder. Here is the result:

How flipping awesome is that? And you don’t have to trust me: go do it yourself. Make a screen grab, or use a template the video maker put together. Heck, just grab the screengrab I already made and look for yourself!

You may note the two squares above aren’t exactly the same color; getting a screen grab and compressing the file and all that mucked with the coloring a bit. But clearly, those two squares are very close in shade and color, nowhere near as different as your brain thinks they are in the checkerboard. This classic illusion is due to the way you interpret color (or shading): it’s not done independently; your brain is always comparing things. In one case, the square is surrounded by lighter squares which make it look darker, and in the other case it’s surrounded by darker squares, making it look lighter. The shadow going across the squares messes with your perception as well, amplifying the effect.

These kinds of illusions are maddening and overwhelming that I expect that despite my clear demo and urging of people to try this for themselves, there will be quite the spirited discussion in this post’s comments (just as there was for this one, one of my all-time favorites) . But there you go. We humans are convinced that we see the world as it really is, but that’s complete rubbish. We don’t. We see things filtered not just through our fallible senses, but also then interpreted by our ridiculously pliable minds.

The Universe is not trying to fool us. It doesn’t need to; we do an astonishingly good job of that ourselves. But as long as you’re aware of it you can see through the illusion, and, if you’re sufficiently willing to, you might see everything a bit more clearly.

Tip o’ the Necker cube to Richard Wiseman; go subscribe to his blog. Trust me. You’ll love it.


* I noticed an edit in the video at 50 seconds in. I imagine they just had to do another take, and not work any trickery; as you’ll see in my demo, it doesn’t matter! The effect is real. In that it’s an illusion. Um. You know what I mean.


Related posts:

The blue and the green (one of the single best illusions of all time)
The illusion will drive you mad
Why does the Moon look so huge on the horizon?
Square circle spiral

Disturbing face distortion illusion

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2011 10:48 am

This is a pretty nifty illusion: as you look at a spot between two rapidly changing images of faces, your brain distorts the images, making them look really weird:

I could do without the title they chose for the video, but the paper on which it’s based is called "Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces", which may not explain much, either. What it means, basically, is that as the faces flash, certain features get distorted by your brain, and the amount of distortion depends on how much that feature deviates from the rest in the set. In other words, someone with slightly larger eyes gets perceived by you as having huge eyes. Go ahead and pause the video and click through it; the faces are pretty much normal faces, so the distortion really is an illusion.

I think that’s pretty neat; I’m fascinated by how our brains perceive faces in particular, since people see them everywhere. I’d love to see some variations on this, like showing men’s faces, or a man on one side and a woman on the other. Would it work for animal faces too? Hmmm.

I’ll note that some people have a hard time seeing this illusion; my friend Richard Wiseman — who knows a thing or two on how the brain can be fooled! — doesn’t see it well. Do you?

Tip o’ the Nacker cube to Gizmodo and my old friend Bill Dalton.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, illusion, Pareidolia

A dragon fight in the heart of Orion

By Phil Plait | June 24, 2011 11:49 am

It’s very common to see familiar things in random patterns. We see faces in clouds, Jesus in a tortilla, and smiley faces everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous there’s a term for it: pareidolia.

So when I saw on reddit that people were talking about seeing an epic dragon fight in the Orion Nebula, I smiled. But then I saw the image, and that smile turned to pure amazement. Why? Because here’s the image:

[Click to ensmaugenate.]

Do you see the dragon on the left, wings outstretched, breathing fire, blasting it at the man on the right? He has a face, and I see his shoulder, back, and outstretched arm as well, as if he’s battling the dragon.

Let me be clear: this picture is real! Well, the dragon and face aren’t real — they’re more pareidolia — but the images in the nebula are actually there. You might see them more easily in this contrast-enhanced version, too.

Let me explain…

Read More

Best illusions of the year

By Phil Plait | June 5, 2011 7:00 am

I love optical illusions (see Related Posts at the bottom of this article for more), so I was happy to discover that every year, the Neural Correlate Society has a contest to find the best ones. This year’s Top 10 finalists have been announced.

My favorite (which I can’t embed here, sorry) is called "Grouping by contrast". You’d swear the spots are not the same color, but I cut two holes out of a piece of paper to block the background, and sure enough they are. It’s incredible. The illusion is a variation on the well-known chessboard contrast illusion and is similar to another illusion showing that how we see colors isn’t as straight-forward as you might think.

Another cool one is this:

Click play, and stare at the white dot in the center. You can easily see the dots changing color… until the dots appear to rotate. They suddenly seem to stop changing color, but in reality they still are. Rerun the video and look at the dots instead of the center, and you’ll see.

The best illusions are the ones where you’d swear it’s a trick. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? So go to the list and check out the other finalists. And remember: seeing is not believing. You cannot always trust your eyes and brain to give you a good picture of reality.

As a skeptic, I find that knowledge comes in handy quite often.

Tip o’ the Escher staircase to slashdot.


Related posts:

The blue and the green (one of my most popular blog posts of all time)
This illusion will drive you mad
Video illusions
Why does the Moon look so huge on the horizon?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, illusion
MORE ABOUT: optical illusion

Rushmore, doubt less

By Phil Plait | January 27, 2011 7:00 am

You’ve almost certainly seen pictures of Mount Rushmore; it’s a magnificent carving of the heads of four past US presidents, each almost 20 meters high. Located in South Dakota, it’s in a national park and a big tourist attraction (and the scene of the finale of "North by Northwest").

But did you know it’s evidence that man was intelligently designed? Well, it’s certainly used that way by creationists proponents of Intelligent Design; no less a leading light of ID than William Dembski has used Mt. Rushmore as an example:

Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

Well, I guess it depends if the aliens see vertically or horizontally, because look what happens if you turn the picture sideways:

Aha! Obviously, there’s no way that this fifth face could have arisen naturally. After all, "eyewitnesses saw the sculptor… designing and building this structure"!

Sorry, all my fellow scientists, skeptics, critical thinkers, and reality-based compadres. Dembski clearly has rock solid proof.

Tip o’ the jackhammer to Tucker Phelps.


Related posts:

The Discovery Institute has no shame
Louisiana: even more doomed
Intelligent Designers nonsense: part n
Irony thy name is ID
Astrology and ID sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

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