Last Friday, Edinburgh saw a spectacular and rare partial solar eclipse. Over 90% of the sun was blocked out and, even though it was not a total eclipse, it did get rather dark and noticeably colder. In Ancient China, an eclipse was believed to have been caused by a dragon eating the sun. People would bang drums to scare the dragon away!
In a sense, an eclipse is just a giant illusion; it looks like the sun is disappearing, but it’s not and it will soon return.
Space is full of illusions. such as when the cosmos and other planets look like faces. Take the Face on Mars, for example….
This is called ‘pareidolia’ and is a human tendency to see faces in inanimate objects. It stems from the fact that our brains only need a few features to identify a face, and when these are seen we perceive the face – an evolutionary hangover to help us identify our fellow species, and thus safety, in dark environments.
Mars is home to another occurrence of pareidolia, a more amusing one; the Galle, or ‘happy face’, crater:
With pop culture, social media and Internet memes becoming very popular, pareidolia can be used for other objects too, such as the heat signatures of Mimas and Tethys, two of Saturn’s moons, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Pac-man.
Of course, you do not have to go to space to see pareidolia. At the Camera Obscura, we have many examples on display, such as copies of work by the sixteenth century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
You can also find examples in your own home!
Written by Jen Cresswell