Yes, There is a Rat on Mars…

By Corey S. Powell | June 5, 2013 1:13 pm

…and there is also a human figure, several faces, a bunny rabbit, a gun, a small chair, a large forest, and pretty much every other shape the human eye can piece together given a very large number of random shapes to contemplate. They are all real, in the sense that people genuinely do register them in the mind. As many writers have noted, the tendency of the eye and the brain to collaborate on creating recognizable objects is a well-known and quite powerful psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia.

The mystery rat of Mars, aka, a random rock. (Credit: NASA/MSL)

From an evolutionary point of view, pareidolia is a very useful thing. Babies are hard-wired to look for their mothers’ faces, because that is their source of food and protection (and eye contact is an important social bond). There is also a significant upside in perceiving the shapes of both predators and prey half-hidden in abstract clumps of leaves; seeing some animals that are not actually there is far less of a problem than missing some that are.

Which brings me to the new “Mars rat,” or maybe “Mars lizard” depending on your perspective. This story has been lighting up the interwebs for about a week now. There is a long, long history of seeing animal shapes on Mars–the Red Planet being an especially attractive target because it is so tightly associated with the search for life in space, and because we just have so many pictures of the surface to dig through. The most notable thing about the latest sighting is that this time the conspiracy theorists are not arguing that NASA has found Mars life and is keeping it a secret (for unimaginable reasons). No, the alleged plot is that NASA is running secret animal experiments on Mars and one of the creatures has escaped.

The “Mars bunny” seen by NASA’s Opportunity rover is probably a bit of shredded airbag. (Credit: NASA/MER)

Here’s a quick thought: If scientists want to know how animals react to thin air and cold temperatures, they could easily do that experiment in the lab and save a billion dollars. Like most conspiracy theories, the fun of it lies entirely on the idea that somebody has a secret. Logic is not required. [Addendum: I just noted a link to an insightful recent study on conspiracy theories in the Comments section below.]

I do find it interesting, though, that scientists themselves fully participate in the process of projecting animal and human figures out into space. The list of scientific nicknames for rocks on Mars is full of such imagery. Just moments ago I got a press release about a new story of the Cat’s Paw Nebula (though for the life of me I cannot see the paw in that image). I’d like to put this experiment out to DISCOVER’s readers: What are the most exotic creatures and constructions that you can find in the flood of amazing Mars imagery from the Curiosity mission?

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

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Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.

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