Early Monday morning, NASA’s Hubble Telescope gifted us with a rather crude reminder that our lives on Earth are but a cosmic joke.
Ha ha ha, says the great Jack Skellington in the sky, you are all my minions. Or maybe the face belongs to a more benign being, smiling upon us in kindness and approval. More likely, though, the phenomenon is a trick of our face-loving, pattern-seeking brains, which causes us to interpret galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 as a grinning face.
According to the Hubble website, the “face” is made up of two bright galaxy eyes and something called strong gravitational lensing, an effect which appears to us like an arc of light — or in this case, a close-mouthed smile. More from NASA:
Galaxy clusters are the most massive structures in the Universe and exert such a powerful gravitational pull that they warp the spacetime around them and act as cosmic lenses which can magnify, distort and bend the light behind them. This phenomenon, crucial to many of Hubble’s discoveries, can be explained by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Of course, this smile isn’t the first example of social anthropomorphization of space - we’ve been using images to make sense of the cosmos for centuries. Here’s a look at how humans have interpreted celestial bodies over the years.
According to Space.com, roughly half of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomy Union date back to Ancient Greece and Babylonia. Many of these represent animals, like the Lynx:
And humans, like Orion:
Now, we don't need constellations to help steer our boats, but some are still interested in spotting (or, um, placing) animals in the sky:
The craterous surface of the moon has long provided humans with fodder for interpretation. Here’s how the moon actually looks:
And a National Geographic graphic explainer of how people see it:
The face on the moon first got the silver screen treatment in the 1902 film Le Voyage Dans la Lune.
More recently, an enterprising Google Moon-er spotted this figure, that also resembles a tiny (or giant?) man on the moon:
A 1976 NASA photo that shows some Martian hills. One of them looks a lot like a face:
That one's actually kind of convincing.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.