Bad Astronomy

Pining for Mars

Does this NASA photo from the rover Opportunity show a wooden log on Mars?

Hard to tell? Then look at the zoomed-in image, and ask again: is this a log (petrified or otherwise) on the surface of the Red Planet?

Duh. No.

But if you read some websites, you might think it is. So what’s going on here?

The quick answer is: this is another in a long line of examples of pareidolia; people seeing familiar things in random or semi-random patterns. In other words, this looks like a log, but it ain’t. Remember the Martian Bigfoot? Yeah, this is the same kind of thing.

How do I know? Well, lots of reasons. For one thing, this photo is from 2005. Had any scientist studying Mars seen this and thought it was actually wood, I think they would have said something by now.

Second, there’s no evidence at all of any macroscopic plant life on Mars. The vista shown here is a vast range of desert. What are the odds there would be a log smack dab in the way of the the rover as it moves across Mars? Note too that the tracks go right over the object; Opportunity literally ran it over. That means lots of people in the control room on Earth saw this object, yet no one said anything about it being a log. And if you think they’re covering it up, then why did they publish the image in a press release?

Third, look to the right of the “log”. There are two rocks that look a lot like it:

That image is slightly different from the one I displayed above, with better contrast. See how the rocks are the same color as the “log”? And look at the patterns on the rocks; they’re the same too. The linear patterns even line up with those of the longer object! This indicates we’re looking at a rock here.

And finally, fourth: I mean, c’mon. A log? On Mars? Sheesh.

Clearly what we’re seeing here is another rock, probably different than the flat rocks that are paler, but very similar to the darker ones. It looks like a petrified log, but then we know that many things look like other things. Wasp nests look like Buddha (or the StayPuft Marshmallow Man), and rocks look like Bigfoot (which is like a case of meta-nonsense, given we’re talking Bigfoot).

It’s certainly an interesting object, since it’s long, and all the other rocks are not. I imagine that geologically there’s some story behind it. But I really really don’t think it involves wood.

But that won’t stop the goofballs out there, breathlessly playing this silliness up. One site said this photo was leaked. Yeah, leaked, as a frackin’ press release on the NASA site!


Another site goes on about how maybe it’s a log and maybe it’s not, but who can trust NASA? After all, it’s so easy to fake pictures. But they don’t make the logical connection that if NASA faked the image, then (again) why did they publish it in a press release but make no mention of the object itself?

It’s frustrating that unthinking nonsense like this gets spread so quickly through the web. It’s the Ebola of science, and far too may people are far too willing to pass the virus on. It relies heavily on people not understanding science (and skepticism) all that well, and them also not understanding that seeing is not necessarily believing.

So if you see something like this, think about it before sending it on to the next victim. Does the claim really make sense? Is it supported by the data you have, and is there evidence against it? And you can always look to my blog here for more, or to other places like the BAUT forum, where lots of smart and knowledgeable people look into claims just like this one.

It’s amazing how much bad thinking is out there in cyberspace. But don’t worry. Its bark is a lot worse than its byte.