The Skeptical Teacher

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

The Hand of God?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2009

There is an image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory which is all over the Internet these days. Here it is…

What do you see? Most people, when asked, say they see what looks like a large ghostly hand reaching towards the nebula to the upper right of the photo. In actuality, according to NASA, the picture is an x-ray photograph of a young pulsar, or rotating neutron star

A small, dense object only 12 miles in diameter is responsible for this beautiful X-ray nebula that spans 150 light years. At the center of this image, made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, is a very young and powerful pulsar, known as PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand.

The reactions span the entire spectrum from scientific curiosity to religious & pseudoscientific rapture. For example, there are already a huge number of media stories and websites with interesting titles like “Cosmic Hand Reaches for the Light” and others referring to “The Hand of God” with sentiments like these…

Although it can be explained scientifically, I don’t live in a scientific world. I live in spirit and in truth just as it is written. GOD created man. Man created science. So obviously who created science? If you disagree, then that’s fine. hehehe!

The GOD of the Universe is the GOD who is holding us in the palm of HIS hands.

Isn’t it so awesome to know? GOD is holding me in HIS hands. That is just so sweet!

I need not worry about anything.

Wow. Personally, I find it quite ironic that someone who uses the Web to blog takes such a disdainful opinion of science – you know, the very endeavor which created the Internet?

Anyway, as the last link shows, there are many who will look at this photo and use it to justify a variety of religious and/or woo beliefs. Some fundamentalists will likely use this as “proof” of the existence of God and therefore their particular brand of religion. It is ironic to note that if you were to look at this nebula in visible light, you wouldn’t see the “hand” feature at all because the photograph was taken using x-rays, which are invisible to humans.

Of course, this sort of thing is nothing new – for example, there is the famous case of the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich…

virgin mary grilled cheese

Interestingly enough, when I show this particular image to my students (during a discussion of light, optics, and optical illusions) many of them see a face but not the Virgin Mary. In fact, it seems that most of the students who do see the Virgin Mary are Catholic! So why does that matter?

It all has to do with a perceptual phenomenon called pareidolia – which is, as stated by the Skeptic’s Dictionary

Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct.

In addition, people are more likely to see something with which they are familiar. This is why just about everyone sees a hand in the Chandra image, whereas usually only Catholics see the Virgin Mary (while most other people just see a face) in the grilled cheese sandwich. The perception of these images (as opposed to the reality), out of basically random noise, is due to our preconceived biases and evolved capability at pattern recognition more than anything else.

Pareidolia consistently explains all manner of woo & illusion, from UFO sightings to the man in the Moon to supposed Satanic messages on vinyl records played backwards (a kind of audible pareidolia).

So while the photo from the Chandra satellite is quite beautiful, realize what is real and what is illusory. To avoid being fooled and fooling ourselves, it is very important to be able to distinguish the two.

One Response to “The Hand of God?”

  1. Hi, interesting post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for posting. I will certainly be coming back to your posts.

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