Monday, 22 March 2021

The Pattern-Recognising Ape - Seeing Things That Aren't What They Seem

A composite image of the USS Jellyfish in Abell 2877 showing the optical Digitised Sky Survey (background) with XMM X-ray data (magenta overlay) and MWA 118 MHz radio data (red-yellow overlay).

Credit: Torrance Hodgson, ICRAR/Curtin University.
Astronomers see a ‘Space Jellyfish’ - ICRAR

In an interesting manifestation of the very human phenomenon of pareidolia (the ability to perceive things which are not really there in patterns) was published by The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) when announcing the findings of an Australian-Italian team using the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to observe a cluster of galaxies known as Abell 2877.

What they 'saw' was a space 'jellyfish'!

Pareidolia is responsible for, for example, the multiple images of Jesus and Mary on toast or in the mess left by a dropped ice-cream. In one case, a chance damp patch on a newly-platered toilet wall in Mali was interpreted as the image of Mohammad at prayer, attracting several high-profile celebrities and politicians to come to see the 'miracle'.

I recall seeing a 'face' on a gravestone in a Welsh churchyard some years ago that a superstitious person could easily be persuaded was Jesus or Satan watching them. (Incidentally, we were looking for the graves of a couple of children in my family tree, by the names of Mary and Joseph - I'm not making this up!)

The same phenomenon has persuaded people that a view of Mt Susitna, looking west across Cook Inlet from Anchorage, Alaska, USA, looks a bit like a sleeping lady, hence the popular name of the view.

'Face' on a gravestone, Nantmel, Wales
'Miracles' of this nature are frequently seized upon by religions, especially the Catholic Church, as evidence that their superstition is the one true faith and that Mary and/or Jesus are real and regularly manifest themselves, often with special messages highly convenient to the Catholic Church. No doubt if the legend of the 'Sleeping Lady' had appeared in the Bible, the view of Mt Susitna would be 'evidence' that the legend was true history, just as, in some fundamentalist Christian groups, the roughly boat-shaped rock formation on Mount Ararat is 'proof' that the Noah's Ark legend was rel history.

In the case of this 'space jellyfish', of course, the astronomers knew perfectly well that what they 'saw' was an illusion - a chance arrangements of astronomical phenomena when viewed from Earth. Like the familar constellations that astrologer frauds use, when viewed from a different point in space, the familiar patterns is not there because stars and other bodies which look like they are in the same plane are in reality many light-years different in their distance from Earth.

The news release from ICRAR explains:
Lead author and PhD candidate Torrance Hodgson, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, said the team observed the cluster for 12 hours at five radio frequencies between 87.5 and 215.5 megahertz.

“We looked at the data, and as we turned down the frequency, we saw a ghostly jellyfish-like structure begin to emerge,” he said.

“This radio jellyfish holds a world record of sorts. Whilst it’s bright at regular FM radio frequencies, at 200 MHz the emission all but disappears.

Our working theory is that around 2 billion years ago, a handful of supermassive black holes from multiple galaxies spewed out powerful jets of plasma. This plasma faded, went quiet, and lay dormant. Then quite recently, two things happened—the plasma started mixing at the same time as very gentle shock waves passed through the system. This has briefly reignited the plasma, lighting up the jellyfish and its tentacles for us to see.

Torrance Hodgson, Lead author
PhD candidate
Curtin University node
International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR)
“No other extragalactic emission like this has been observed to disappear anywhere near so rapidly.”

This uniquely steep spectrum has been challenging to explain. “We’ve had to undertake some cosmic archaeology to understand the ancient background story of the jellyfish,” said Hodgson.

“Our working theory is that around 2 billion years ago, a handful of supermassive black holes from multiple galaxies spewed out powerful jets of plasma. This plasma faded, went quiet, and lay dormant.

“Then quite recently, two things happened—the plasma started mixing at the same time as very gentle shock waves passed through the system.

“This has briefly reignited the plasma, lighting up the jellyfish and its tentacles for us to see.”

The jellyfish is over a third of the Moon’s diameter when observed from Earth, but can only be seen with low-frequency radio telescopes. “Most radio telescopes can’t achieve observations this low due to their design or location,” said Hodgson.
Way back in our evolutionary history, the ability to recognise faces (especially) was probably important because we needed to recognise those in our social groups as we developed the cooperative behaviour that was so important to us as a surviving species in a hostile environment. The same ability might then have allowed us to recognise the tracks of predator and prey species, and see the patterns in those tracks that enabled us to make predictions about their movements - to 'see' the story and so become more successful at hunting and avoiding being hunted.

We are still very much the pattern-recognising, story-telling ape. Religions are the product of this ability to make up a story to explain the illusions we see in the 'patterns' that are a product of random processes with no relevance to anything outside our perception and the need to understand the story behind them in terms of our anthropocentrism.








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