Steal This Meme: Smiley Pareidolia

Crane no obligation universe

Meet galaxy cluster SDSSJ1038+4849. I saw it on, of all places, the local Fox morning news. The Fox News guy read off the words “gravitational lensing” and “Einstein Ring” and I revved the search engine. The gnomic Stephen Crane poem evoking a no obligation universe came to mind, and a meme was born.

This image was found by a woman sifting through the vast database of accumulated imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. The database is so massive that not even the astronomers involved in the imaging have seen it all; NASA has opened it to the public and started a contest, Hubble’s Hidden Treasures, inviting the hive to crowd-sort it all.

Thus, in a little more than a hundred years, we have progressed from Edward Pickering of Harvard Observatory paying his female “computers” 20 dollars a week to examine and catalog the photographic plates from telescopic sky surveys, to people hiving up to sort the stars for free. We’ve come so far.

As this WaPo article points out, Judy Schmidt’s discovery of the cosmic smiley face is a prime example of pareidolia, the human capacity to instantly superimpose pattern on raw random sensory experience. For instance, on an unmedicated manic high during a particularly bright full moon, I not only saw the Man in the Moon, but saw him gesticulating at me as he spoke, though I could not hear what he said. I also on occasion hear voices in the falling water of the shower at times–audio pareidolia. The fact that we can see a face at all in the abstract circle, ovals, and curves of the Smiley Face is the sine qua non of directed pareidolia.

So put on a happy face, and steal this meme.


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