From _SCIENCE_, Vol. 261, Sept. 10, 1993, p. 1392: A Face-Off on Mars Although the silence

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From _SCIENCE_, Vol. 261, Sept. 10, 1993, p. 1392: A Face-Off on Mars Although the silence from the Mars Observer was deafening, and the atmosphere inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was one of quiet gloom during the crisis over its missing spacecraft, outside things were a bit noisier. Two days after JPL lost contact with Observer, picketers were marching in front of the building, protesting that NASA had purposely blacked out the craft. Why would the beleaguered space agency do such a thing? To cover up evidence of exterrestrial life, of course. "NASA Face Up To It" read one sign, as the picketers claimed that the agency was afraid to take new images of the famous martian "face" that the Viking mission had photographed back in 1976. Pictures beamed back from Viking that year showed a huge, mile-wide rock formation on the Red Planet that looks somewhat like a somber, sphinx-like face. To some observers, computer-enhanced analysis of Viking's pictures suggested the face wasn't natural, but deliberately constructed, and thus another obvious remnant of an ancient civilization. Psychologists agree that the face is an artiface--but one created by the eyes of the beholders, not by martians. They say it's a textbook illustration of the natural human tendency to see faces given minimal detail. "The human visual system is organized to see [features] in random patterns, and faces are particularly salient," says University of Rochester psychologist David Williams. To this point, NASA has not bothered to respond to the recent protest. They're still too busy searching for the Mars Observer to look for a mysterious counenance.


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