The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

Earlier this week, a news story made the rounds making the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that the Hubble Space Telescope had imaged a “cosmic Christmas ornament” in the sky.  Here’s the image…

The article then goes on to state:

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a festive view of the cosmos in time for the holiday season, with some saying the picture of a star nursery looks like a wreath, maybe a Christmas tree, or even Santa.

The spacecraft observed a group of young stars called R136, which is only a few million years old and inhabits the 30 Doradus Nebula, part of a relatively nearby satellite galaxy of our Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the photograph, hundreds of brilliant blue stars are surrounded by a ring of warm, glowing orange clouds of dust. The colorful portrait evokes a giant wreath of pine boughs studded with glowing jewels — sort of. And in the hollow center, the dark shadow has the distinct silhouette of a Christmas tree. Really!

Finally, if flipped 90 degrees clockwise, the image even resembles the face and beard of Santa Claus himself. Somewhat.

Well, whether or not this heavenly view actually has anything to do with the season on Earth, it does teach scientists about what’s happening up above.

This humorous story does a good job of hitting upon the point I wanted to make: what you see in such images, whether they are of “Santa” in a cosmic nebulae in the sky or “Jesus” in a rusty clothing-iron, is the result of a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia. We see familiar patterns because we are trained, by both evolution & our upbringing, to see familiar images even when there’s nothing more than random noise present.

In short, pareidolia is in your head, and different people “see” different things.  More than anything, pareidolia tells us a lot about ourselves and what we’re thinking rather than what we believe we’re looking at.

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2 Responses to “Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament?”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mr Spock's Movies, STAR TREK UNIVERSE. STAR TREK UNIVERSE said: RT @_Spock_: Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament? « The … http://bit.ly/7is29T [...]

  2. Wow! makes me wanna go to outer space!

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