The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 3. The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars

The moon leaps

In the Great River’s current…

Floating on the wind,

What do I resemble?

Du Fu, Travelling at Night’ (China, Tang Dynasty, 765)

Each field of science has its own complement of pseudo-science. Geophysicists have flat Earths, hollow Earths, Earths with wildly bobbing axes to contend with, rapidly rising and sinking continents, plus earthquake prophets. Botanists have plants whose passionate emotional lives can be monitored with He detectors, anthropologists have surviving ape-men, zoologists have extant dinosaurs, and evolutionary biologists have Biblical literalists snapping at their flanks. Archaeologists have ancient astronauts, forged runes and spurious statuary. Physicists have perpetual motion machines, an army of amateur relativity disprovers, and perhaps cold fusion. Chemists still have alchemy. Psychologists have much of psychoanalysis and almost all of parapsychology. Economists have long-range economic forecasting. Meteorologists, so far, have long-range weather forecasting, as in the sunspot-oriented Farmer’s Almanac (although long-term climate forecasting is another matter). Astronomy has, as its most prominent pseudoscience, astrology But because I work mainly with planets, and because I’ve been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the pseudo-sciences that most often park themselves on my doorstep involve other worlds and what we have come so easily in our time to - the discipline out of which it emerged. The pseudosciences sometimes intersect, compounding the confusion - as in telepathic searches for buried treasures from Atlantis, or astrological economic forecasting.

But because I work mainly with planets, and because I’ve been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the pseudo-sciences that most often park themselves on my doorstep involve other worlds and what we have come so easily in our time to call ‘aliens’. In the chapters immediately following, I want to lay out two recent, somewhat related pseudoscientific doctrines. They share the possibility that human perceptual and cognitive imperfections play a role in deceiving us on matters of great import. The first contends that a giant stone face from ages past is staring expressionlessly up at the sky from the sands of Mars. The second maintains that alien beings from distant worlds visit the Earth with casual impunity.

Even when summarized so baldly, isn’t there a kind of thrill in contemplating these claims? What if such hoary science fiction ideas - resonant surely with deep human fears and longings -actually were coming to pass? Whose interest can fail to be aroused? Immersed in such material, even the crassest cynic is stirred. Are we absolutely sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we can dismiss these claims? And if hardened debunkers can sense the appeal, what must those untutored in scientific scepticism, like Mr ‘Buckley’, feel?

For most of history - before spacecraft, before telescopes, when we were still largely immersed in magical thinking - the Moon was an enigma. Almost no one thought of it as a world.

What do we actually see when we look up at the Moon with the naked eye? We make out a configuration of irregular bright and dark markings - not a close representation of any familiar object. But, almost irresistibly, our eyes connect the markings, emphasizing some, ignoring others. We seek a pattern and we find one. In world myth and folklore, many images are seen: a woman weaving, stands of laurel trees, an elephant jumping off a cliff, a girl with a basket on her back, a rabbit, the lunar intestines spilled out on its surface after evisceration by an irritable flightless bird, a woman pounding tapa cloth, a four-eyed jaguar. People of one culture have trouble understanding how such bizarre things could be seen by the people of another.

The most common image is the Man in the Moon. Of course, it doesn’t really look like a man. Its features are lopsided, warped, drooping. There’s a beefsteak or something over the left eye. And what expression does that mouth convey? An ‘O’ of surprise? A hint of sadness, even lamentation? Doleful recognition of the travails of life on Earth? Certainly the face is too round. The ears are missing. 1 guess he’s bald on top. Nevertheless, every time I look at it, I see a human face.

World folklore depicts the Moon as something prosaic. In the pre-Apollo generation, children were told that the Moon was made of green (that is, smelly) cheese, and for some reason this was thought not marvellous but hilarious. In children’s books and editorial cartoons, the Man in the Moon is often drawn simply as a face set in a circle, not too different from the bland ‘happy face’ of a pair of dots and an upturned arc. Benignly, he looks down on the nocturnal frolics of animals and children, of the knife and the spoon.

Consider again the two categories of terrain we recognize when we examine the Moon with the naked eye: the brighter forehead, cheeks and chin, and the darker eyes and mouth. Through a telescope, the bright features are revealed to be ancient cratered highlands, dating back, we now know (from the radioactive dating of samples returned by the Apollo astronauts), to almost 4.5 billion years ago. The dark features are somewhat younger flows of basaltic lava called maria (singular, mare - both from the Latin word for ocean, although the Moon, we now know, is dry as a bone). The maria welled up in the first few hundred million years of lunar history, partly induced by the high-speed impact of enormous asteroids and comets. The right eye is Mare Imbrium, the beefsteak drooping over the left eye is the combination of Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquilitatis (where Apollo 11 landed), and the off-centre open mouth is Mare Humorum. (No craters can be made out by ordinary, unaided human vision.)

The Man in the Moon is in fact a record of ancient catastrophes, most of which took place before humans, before mammals, before vertebrates, before multicelled organisms, and probably even before life arose on Earth. It is a characteristic conceit of our species to put a human face on random cosmic violence.

Humans, like other primates, are a gregarious lot. We enjoy one another’s company. We’re mammals and parental care of the young is essential for the continuance of the hereditary lines. The parent smiles at the child, the child smiles back, and a bond is forged or strengthened. As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face and to respond with a goony grin.

As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern-recognition machinery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none. We assemble disconnected patches of light and dark and unconsciously try to see a face. The Man in the Moon is one result. Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blowup describes another. There are many other examples.

Sometimes it’s a geological formation, such as the Old Man of the Mountain at Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. We recognize that, rather than some supernatural agency or an otherwise undiscovered ancient civilization in New Hampshire, this is the product of erosion and collapse of a rock face. Anyway, it doesn’t look much like a face anymore. There’s the Devil’s Head in North Carolina, the Sphinx Rock in Wast Water, Cumbria, England, the Old Woman in France, the Vartan Rock in Armenia. Sometimes it’s a reclining woman, as Mt Ixtaccihuatl in Mexico. Sometimes it’s other body parts, as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming -approached from the West, a pair of mountain peaks named by French explorers. (Actually there are three.) Sometimes it’s changing patterns in the clouds. In late medieval and renaissance Spain, visions of the Virgin Mary were ‘confirmed’ by people seeing saints in cloud forms. (While sailing out of Suva, Fiji, I once saw the head of a truly terrifying monster, jaws agape, set in a brooding storm cloud.)

Occasionally, a vegetable or a pattern of wood grain or the hide of a cow resembles a human face. There was a celebrated eggplant that closely resembled Richard M. Nixon. What shall we deduce from this fact? Divine or extraterrestrial intervention? Republican meddling in eggplant genetics? No. We recognize that there are large numbers of eggplants in the world and that, given enough of them, sooner or later we’ll come upon one that looks like a human face, even a very particular human face.

When the face is of a religious personage - as, for example, a tortilla purported to exhibit the face of Jesus - believers tend quickly to deduce the hand of God. In an age more sceptical than most, they crave reassurance. Still, it seems unlikely that a miracle is being worked on so evanescent a medium. Considering how many tortillas have been pounded out since the beginning of the world, it would be surprising if a few didn’t have at least vaguely familiar features.*

[* These cases are very different from that of the so-called Shroud of Turin, which shows something too close to a human form to be a misapprehended natural pattern and which is now suggested by carbon-14 dating to be not the death shroud of Jesus, but a pious hoax from the fourteenth century - a time when the manufacture of fraudulent religious relics was a thriving and profitable home handicraft industry.]

Magical properties have been ascribed to ginseng and mandrake roots, in part because of vague resemblances to the human form. Some chestnut shoots show smiling faces. Some corals look like hands. The ear fungus (also unpleasantly called ‘Jew’s ear’) indeed looks like an ear, and something rather like enormous eyes can be seen on the wings of certain moths. Some of this may not be mere coincidence; plants and animals that suggest a face may be less likely to be gobbled up by creatures with faces - or creatures who are afraid of predators with faces. A ‘walking stick’ is an insect spectacularly well disguised as a twig. Naturally, it tends to live on and around trees. Its mimicry of the plant world saves it from birds and other predators, and is almost certainly the reason that its extraordinary form was slowly moulded by Darwinian natural selection. Such crossings of the boundaries between kingdoms of life are unnerving. A young child viewing a walking stick can easily imagine an army of sticks, branches and trees marching for some ominous planty purpose.

Many instances of this sort are described and illustrated in a 1979 book called Natural Likeness by John Michell, a British enthusiast of the occult. He takes seriously the claims of Richard Shaver, who - as described below - played a role in the origin of the UFO excitement in America. Shaver cut open rocks on his Wisconsin farm and discovered, written in a pictographic language that only he could see, much less understand, a comprehensive history of the world. Michell also accepts at face value the claims of the dramatist and surrealist theoretician Antonin Artaud, who, in part under the influence of peyote, saw in the patterns on the outsides of rocks erotic images, a man being tortured, ferocious animals and the like. ‘The whole landscape revealed itself,’ Michell says, ‘as the creation of a single thought.’ But a key question: was that thought inside or outside Artaud’s head? Artaud concluded, and Michell agrees, that the patterns so apparent in the rocks were manufactured by an ancient civilization, rather than by Artaud’s partly hallucinogen-induced altered state of consciousness. When Artaud returned from Mexico to Europe, he was diagnosed as mad. Michell decries the ‘materialist outlook’ that greeted Artaud’s patterns sceptically.

Michell shows us a photograph of the Sun taken in X-ray light which looks vaguely like a face and informs us that ‘followers of Gurdjieff see the face of their Master’ in the solar corona. Innumerable faces in trees, mountains and boulders all over the world are inferred to be the product of ancient wisdom. Perhaps some are: it’s a good practical joke, as well as a tempting religious symbol, to pile stones so from afar they look like a giant face.

The view that most of these forms are patterns natural to rock-forming processes and the bilateral symmetry of plants and animals, plus a little natural selection - all processed through the human-biased filter of our perception - Michell describes as ‘materialism’ and a ‘nineteenth-century delusion’. ‘Conditioned by rationalist beliefs, our view of the world is duller and more confined than nature intended.’ By what process he has plumbed the intentions of Nature is not revealed.

Of the images he presents, Michell concludes that

their mystery remains essentially untouched, a constant source of wonder, delight and speculation. All we know for sure is that nature created them and at the same time gave us the apparatus to perceive them and minds to appreciate their endless fascination. For the greatest profit and enjoyment they should be viewed as nature intended, with the eye of innocence, unclouded by theories and preconceptions, with the manifold vision, innate in all of us, that enriches and dignifies human life, rather than with the cultivated single vision of the dull and opinionated.

Perhaps the most famous spurious claim of a portentous pattern involves the canals of Mars. First observed in 1877, they were seemingly confirmed by a succession of dedicated professional astronomers peering through large telescopes all over the world. A network of single and double straight lines was reported, crisscrossing the Martian surface and with such uncanny geometrical regularity that they could only be of intelligent origin. Evocative conclusions were drawn about a parched and dying planet populated by an older and wiser technical civilization dedicated to conservation of water resources. Hundreds of canals were mapped and named. But, oddly, they avoided showing up on photographs. The human eye, it was suggested, could remember the brief instants of perfect atmospheric transparency, while the undiscriminating photographic plate averaged the few clear with the many blurry moments. Some astronomers saw the canals. Many did not. Perhaps certain observers were more skilled at seeing canals. Or perhaps the whole business was some kind of perceptual delusion. Much of the idea of Mars as an abode of life, as well as the prevalence of ‘Martians’ in popular fiction, derives from the canals. I myself grew up steeped in this literature, and when I found myself an experimenter on the Manner 9 mission to Mars -the first spacecraft to orbit the red planet - naturally I was interested to see what the real circumstances were. With Mariner 9and with Viking, we were able to map the planet pole-to-pole, detecting features hundreds of times smaller than the best that could be seen from Earth. I found, not altogether to my surprise, not a trace of canals. There were a few more or less linear features that had been made out through the telescope - for example, a 5,000-kilometre-long rift valley that would have been hard to miss. But the hundreds of ‘classical’ canals carrying water from the polar caps through the arid deserts to the parched equatorial cities simply did not exist. They were an illusion, some malfunction of the human hand-eye-brain combination at the limit of resolution when we peer through an unsteady and turbulent atmosphere.

Even a succession of professional scientists - including famous astronomers who had made other discoveries that are confirmed and now justly celebrated - can make serious, even profound errors in pattern recognition. Especially where the implications of what we think we are seeing seem to be profound, we may not exercise adequate self-discipline and self-criticism. The Martian canal myth constitutes an important cautionary tale.

For the canals, spacecraft missions provided the means of correcting our misapprehensions. But it is also true that some of the most haunting claims of unexpected patterns emerge from spacecraft exploration. In the early 1960s, I urged that we be attentive to the possibility of finding the artefacts of ancient civilizations, either those indigenous to a given worlds or those constructed by visitors from elsewhere. I didn’t imagine that this would be easy or probable, and I certainly did not suggest that, on so important a matter, anything short of iron-clad evidence would be worth considering.

Beginning with John Glenn’s evocative report of ‘fireflies’ surrounding his space capsule, every time an astronaut reported seeing something not immediately understood, there were those who deduced ‘aliens’. Prosaic explanations - specks of paint flecking off the ship in the space environment, say - were dismissed with contempt. The lure of the marvellous blunts our critical faculties. (As if a man become a moon is not marvel enough.)

Around the time of the Apollo lunar landings, many nonexperts - owners of small telescopes, flying saucer zealots, writers for aerospace magazines - pored over the returned photographs seeking anomalies that NASA scientists and astronauts had overlooked. Soon there were reports of gigantic Latin letters and Arabic numerals inscribed on the lunar surface, pyramids, highways, crosses, glowing UFOs. Bridges were reported on the Moon, radio antennas, the tracks of enormous crawling vehicles, and the devastation left by machines able to slice craters in two. Every one of these claims, though, turns out to be a natural lunar geological formation misjudged by amateur analysts, internal reflections in the optics of the astronauts’ Hasselblad cameras, and the like. Some enthusiasts discerned the long shadows of ballistic missiles - Soviet missiles, it was ominously confided, aimed at America. The rockets, also described as ‘spires’, turn out to be low hills casting long shadows when the Sun is near the lunar horizon. A little trigonometry dispels the mirage.

These experiences also provide fair warning: for a complex terrain sculpted by unfamiliar processes, amateurs (and sometimes even professionals) examining photographs, especially near the limit of resolution, may get into trouble. Their hopes and fears, the excitement of possible discoveries of great import, may overwhelm the usual sceptical and cautious approach of science.

If we examine available surface images of Venus, occasionally a peculiar landform swims into view - as, for example, a rough portrait of Joseph Stalin discovered by American geologists analysing Soviet orbital radar imagery. No one maintains, I gather, that unreconstructed Stalinists had doctored the magnetic tapes, or that the former Soviets were engaged in engineering activities of unprecedented and hitherto unrevealed scale on the surface of Venus - where every spacecraft to land has been fried in an hour or two. The odds are overwhelming that this feature, whatever it is, is due to geology. The same is true of what seems to be a portrait of the cartoon character Bugs Bunny on the Uranian moon Ariel. A Hubble space telescope image of Titan in the near-infrared shows clouds roughly configured to make a world-sized smiling face. Every planetary scientist has a favourite example.

The astronomy of the Milky Way also is replete with imagined likenesses - for example, the Horsehead, Eskimo, Owl, Homunculus, Tarantula and North American Nebulae, all irregular clouds of gas and dust, illuminated by bright stars and each on a scale that dwarfs our solar system. When astronomers mapped the distribution of galaxies out to a few hundred million light years, they found themselves outlining a crude human form which has been called ‘the Stickman’. The configuration is understood as something like enormous adjacent soap bubbles, the galaxies formed on the surface of adjacent bubbles and almost no galaxies in the interiors. This makes it quite likely that they will mark out a pattern with bilateral symmetry something like the Stickman.

Mars is much more clement than Venus, although the Viking landers provided no compelling evidence for life. Its terrain is extremely heterogeneous and diverse. With 100,000 or so close-up photographs available, it is not surprising that claims have been made over the years about something unusual on Mars. There is, for example, a cheerful ‘happy face’ sitting inside a Martian impact crater 8 kilometres (5 miles) across, with a set of radial splash marks outside, making it look like the conventional representation of a smiling Sun. But no one claims that this has been engineered by an advanced (and excessively genial) Martian civilization, perhaps to attract our attention. We recognize that, with objects of all sizes falling out of the sky, with the surface rebounding, slumping and reconfiguring itself after each impact, and with ancient water and mudflows and modern windborne sand sculpting the surface, a wide variety of landforms must be generated. If we scrutinize 100,000 pictures, it’s not surprising that occasionally we’ll come upon something like a face. With our brains programmed for this from infancy, it would be amazing if we couldn’t find one here and there.

A few small mountains on Mars resemble pyramids. In the Elysium high plateau, there is a cluster of them - the biggest a few kilometres across at the base - all oriented in the same direction. There issomething a little eerie about these pyramids in the desert, so reminiscent of the Gizeh plateau in Egypt, and I would love to examine them more closely. Is it reasonable, though, to deduce Martian pharaohs?

Similar features are also known on Earth in miniature, especially in Antarctica. Some of them would come up to your knees. If we knew nothing else about them, would it be fair to conclude that they’ve been manufactured by scale-model Egyptians living in the Antarctic wasteland? (The hypothesis loosely fits the observations, but much else we know about the polar environment and the physiology of humans speaks against it.) They are, in fact, generated by wind erosion - the splatter of fine particles picked up by strong winds blowing mainly in the same direction and, over the years, sculpting what once were irregular hummocks into nicely symmetrical pyramids. They’re called dreikanters, from a German word meaning three sides. This is order generated out of chaos by natural processes - something we see over and over again throughout the Universe (in rotating spiral galaxies, for instance). Each time it happens we’re tempted to infer the direct intervention of a Maker.

On Mars, there is evidence of winds much fiercer than any ever experienced on Earth, ranging up to half the speed of sound. Planet-wide duststorms are common, carrying fine grains of sand. A steady pitter-patter of particles moving much faster than in the fiercest gales of Earth should, over ages of geological time, work profound changes in rock faces and landforms. It would not be too surprising if a few features - even very large ones - were sculpted by aeolian processes into the pyramidal forms we see.

There is a place on Mars called Cydonia, where a great stone face a kilometre across stares unblinkingly up at the sky. It is an unfriendly face, but one that seems recognizably human. In some representations, it could have been sculpted by Praxiteles. It lies in a landscape where many low hills have been moulded into odd forms, perhaps by some mixture of ancient mudflows and subsequent wind erosion. From the number of impact craters, the surrounding terrain looks to be at least hundreds of millions of years old.

Intermittently, ‘The Face’ has attracted attention, both in the United States and in the former Soviet Union. The headline in the 20 November 1984 Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid not celebrated for its integrity, read:

SOVIET SCIENTIST’S AMAZING CLAIM: RUINED TEMPLES FOUND ON MARS. SPACE PROBE DISCOVERS REMAINS OF 50,000-YEAR-OLD CIVILIZATION.

The revelations are attributed to an anonymous Soviet source and breathlessly describe discoveries made by a nonexistent Soviet space vehicle.

But the story of ‘The Face’ is almost entirely an American one. It was found by one of the Viking orbiters in 1976. There was an unfortunate dismissal of the feature by a project official as a trick of light and shadow, which prompted a later accusation that NASA was covering up the discovery of the millennium. A few engineers, computer specialists and others - some of them contract employees of NASA - worked on their own time digitally to enhance the image. Perhaps they hoped for stunning revelations. That’s permissible in science, even encouraged - as long as your standards of evidence are high. Some of them were fairly cautious and deserve to be commended for advancing the subject. Others were less restrained, deducing not only that the Face was a genuine, monumental sculpture of a human being, but claiming to find a city nearby with temples and fortifications.* From spurious arguments, one writer announced that the monuments had a particular astronomical orientation - not now, though, but half a million years ago - from which it followed that the Cydonian wonders were erected in that remote epoch. But then how could the builders have been human? Half a million years ago, our ancestors were busy mastering stone tools and fire. They did not have spaceships.

[* The general idea is quite old, going back at least a century to the Martian canal myth of Percival Lowell. As one of many examples, P.E. Cleator, in his 1936 book Rockets Through Space: The Dawn of Interplanetary Travel, speculated: ‘On Mars, the crumbling remains of ancient civilizations may be found, mutely testifying to the one-time glory of a dying world.’]

The Martian Face is compared to ‘similar faces... constructed in civilizations on Earth. The faces are looking up at the sky because they’re looking up to God.’ Or the Face was constructed by the survivors of an interplanetary war that left the surface of Mars (and the Moon) pockmarked and ravaged. What causes all those craters anyway? Is the Face a remnant of a long-extinct human civilization? Were the builders originally from Earth or Mars? Could the Face have been sculpted by interstellar visitors stopping briefly on Mars? Was it left for us to discover? Might they also have come to Earth and initiated life here? Or at least human life? Were they, whoever they were, gods? Much fervent speculation is evoked.

More recently, claims have been made for a connection between ‘monuments’ on Mars and ‘crop circles’ on Earth; of inexhaustible supplies of energy waiting to be extracted from ancient Martian machines; and of a massive NASA cover-up to hide the truth from the American public. Such pronouncements go far beyond more incautious speculation about enigmatic landforms.

When, in August 1993, the Mars Observer spacecraft failed within hailing distance of Mars, there were those who accused NASA of faking the mishap so it could study the Face in detail without having to release the images to the public. (If so, the charade is quite elaborate: all the experts on Martian geomorphol-ogy know nothing about it, and some of us have been working hard to design new missions to Mars less vulnerable to the malfunction that destroyed Mars Observer.) There was even a handful of pickets outside the gates of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked up over this supposed abuse of power.

The tabloid Weekly World News for 14 September 1993 devoted its front page to the headline ‘New NASA Photo Proves Humans Lived on Mars!’ A fake face, allegedly taken by Mars Observer in orbit about Mars (in fact, the spacecraft seems to have failed before achieving orbit), is said by a non-existent ‘leading space scientist’ to prove that Martians colonized Earth 200,000 years ago. The information is being suppressed, he is made to say, to prevent ‘world panic’.

Put aside the improbability that such a revelation would actually lead to ‘world panic’. For anyone who has witnessed a portentous scientific finding in the making - the July 1994 impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter comes to mind - it will be clear that scientists tend to be effervescent and uncontainable. They have an indomitable compulsion to share new data. Only through prior agreement, not ex post facto, do scientists abide military secrecy. I reject the notion that science is by its nature secretive. Its culture and ethos are, and for very good reason, collective, collaborative and communicative.

If we restrict ourselves to what is actually known, and ignore the tabloid industry that manufactures epochal discoveries out of thin air, where are we? When we know only a little about the Face, it raises goosebumps. When we know a little more, the mystery quickly shallows.

Mars has a surface area of almost 150 million square kilometres. Is it so astonishing that one (comparatively) postage-stamp-sized patch in 150 million should look artificial - especially given our penchant, since infancy, for finding faces? When we examine the neighbouring jumble of hillocks, mesas and other complex surface forms, we recognize that the feature is akin to many that do not at all resemble a human face. Why this resemblance? Would the ancient Martian engineers rework only this mesa (well, maybe a few others) and leave all others unimproved by monumental sculpture? Or shall we conclude that other blocky mesas are also sculpted into the form of faces, but weirder faces, unfamiliar to us on Earth?

If we study the original image more carefully, we find that a strategically placed ‘nostril’ - one that adds much to the impression of a face - is in fact a black dot corresponding to lost data in the radio transmission from Mars to Earth. The best picture of the Face shows one side lit by the Sun, the other in deep shadow. Using the original digital data, we can severely enhance the contrast in the shadows. When we do, we find something rather unfacelike there. The Face is at best half a face. Despite our shortness of breath and the beating of our hearts, the Martian sphinx looks natural - not artificial, not a dead ringer for a human face. It was probably sculpted by slow geological process over millions of years.

But I might be wrong. It’s hard to be sure about a world we’ve seen so little of in extreme close-up. These features merit closer attention with higher resolution. Much more detailed photos of the Face would surely settle issues of symmetry and help resolve the debate between geology and monumental sculpture. Small impact craters found on or near the Face can settle the question of its age. In the case (most unlikely in my view) that the nearby structures were really once a city, that fact should also be obvious on closer examination. Are there broken streets? Crenellations in the ‘fort’? Ziggurats, towers, columned temples, monumental statuary, immense frescoes? Or just rocks?

Even if these claims are extremely improbable - as I think they are - they are worth examining. Unlike the UFO phenomenon, we have here the opportunity for a definitive experiment. This kind of hypothesis is falsifiable, a property that brings it well into the scientific arena. I hope that forthcoming American and Russian missions to Mars, especially orbiters with high-resolution television cameras, will make a special effort - among hundreds of other scientific questions - to look much more closely at the pyramids and what some people call the Face and the city.

Even if it becomes plain to everyone that these Martian features are geological and not artificial, monumental faces in space (and allied wonders) will not, I fear, go away. Already there are supermarket tabloids reporting nearly identical faces seen from Venus to Neptune (floating in the clouds?). The ‘findings’ are typically attributed to fictitious Russian spacecraft and imaginary space scientists, which of course makes it marginally harder for a sceptic to check the story out.

One of the Mars face enthusiasts now announces:

Breakthru News of the Century

Censored by NASA

for fear of Religious upheavals and breakdowns.

The Discovery of ancient

ALIEN RUINS ON THE MOON

A ‘giant city, size of Los Angeles basin, covered by immense glass dome, abandoned millions of years ago, and shattered by meteors with gigantic tower 5 miles tall, with giant one mile square cube on top’ is breathlessly ‘CONFIRMED’ on the well-studied Moon. The evidence? Photos taken by NASA robotic and Apollo missions whose significance was suppressed by the government and overlooked by all those lunar scientists in many countries who don’t work for the ‘government’.

The 18 August 1992 issue of Weekly World News reports the discovery by ‘a secret NASA satellite’ of ‘thousands maybe even millions of voices’ emanating from the black hole at the centre of he galaxy M51, all singing ‘ “Glory, glory, glory to the Lord on ligh” over and over again’. In English. There is even a tabloid eport, fully although murkily illustrated, of a space probe that )hotographed God, or at least his eyes and the bridge of his nose, ip there in the Orion Nebula.

The 20 July 1993 WWN sports a banner headline, ‘Clinton tfeets with JFK!’ along with a faked photo of a plausibly aged, ;lumped-over John Kennedy, having secretly survived the assassi-lation attempt, in a wheelchair at Camp David. Many pages nside the tabloid, we are informed about another item of possible nterest. In ‘Doomsday Asteroids’, an alleged top-secret docu-nent quotes alleged ‘top’ scientists about an alleged asteroid ‘M-167’) that will allegedly hit the Earth on 11 November 1993 md ‘could mean the end of life on Earth’. President Clinton is described as being kept ‘constantly informed of the asteroid’s josition and speed’. Perhaps it was one of the items he discussed n his meeting with President Kennedy. Somehow, the fact that :he Earth escaped this catastrophe did not merit even a retrospec-:ive paragraph after 11 November 1993 uneventfully passed. At east the headline writer’s judgement not to burden the front page ivith the news of the end of the world was vindicated.

Some see this as just a kind of fun. However, we live in a time vhen a real long-term statistical threat of an impact of an asteroid ivith the Earth has been identified. (This real science is of course ihe inspiration, if that’s the word, of the WWN story.) Government agencies are studying what to do about it. Stories like this suffuse the subject with apocalyptic exaggeration and whimsy, make it difficult for the public to distinguish real perils from tabloid fiction, and conceivably can impede our ability to take precautionary steps to mitigate the danger.

The tabloids are often sued - sometimes by actors and actresses who stoutly deny they have performed loathsome acts - and large sums of money occasionally change hands. The tabloids must consider such suits as just one of the costs of doing a very profitable business. In their defence they often say that they are at the mercy of their writers and have no institutional responsibility to check out the truth of what they publish. Sal Ivone, the managing editor of Weekly World News, discussing the stories he publishes, says ‘For all I know, they could be the product of active imaginations. But because we’re a tabloid, we don’t have to question ourselves out of a story.’ Scepticism doesn’t sell newspapers. Writers who have defected from the tabloids describe ‘creative’ sessions in which writers and editors dream up stories and headlines out of whole cloth, the more outrageous the better.

Out of their immense readership, are there not many who take the stories at face value, who believe the tabloids ‘couldn’t’ print it if it wasn’t so? Some readers I talk to insist they read them only for entertainment, just as they watch ‘wrestling’ on television, that they’re not in the least taken in, that the tabloids are understood by publisher and reader alike to be whimsies that explore the absurd. They merely exist outside any universe burdened by rules of evidence. But my mail suggests that large numbers of Americans take the tabloids very seriously indeed.

In the 1990s the tabloid universe is expanding, voraciously gobbling up other media. Newspapers, magazines or television programmes that labour under prissy restraints imposed by what is actually known are outsold by media outlets with less scrupulous standards. We can see this in the new generation of acknowledged tabloid television, and increasingly in what passes for news and information programmes.

Such reports persist and proliferate because they sell. And they sell, I think, because there are so many of us who want so badly to be jolted out of our humdrum lives, to rekindle that sense of wonder we remember from childhood, and also, for a few of the stories, to be able, really and truly, to believe in Someone older, smarter and wiser who is looking out for us. Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal. What a relief it would be: doubt reliably abolished! Then, the irksome burden of looking after ourselves would be lifted. We’re worried - and for good reason -about what it means for the human future if we have only ourselves to rely upon.

These are the modern miracles, shamelessly vouched for by those who make them up from scratch, bypassing any formal sceptical scrutiny, and available at low cost in every supermarket, grocery store and convenience outlet in the land. One of the pretences of the tabloids is to make science, the very instrument of our disbelief, confirm our ancient faiths and effect a convergence of pseudoscience and pseudoreligion.

By and large, scientists’ minds are open when exploring new worlds. If we knew beforehand what we’d find, it would be unnecessary to go. In future missions to Mars or to the other fascinating worlds in our neck of the cosmic woods, surprises -even some of mythic proportions - are possible, maybe even likely. But we humans have a talent for deceiving ourselves. Scepticism must be a component of the explorer’s toolkit, or we will lose our way. There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.