Smiley Face Writ Large In Distant Galaxy Cluster
The Hubble Space Telescope has found that largest smiley face ever discovered…in a galaxy cluster 4.5 billion light years from earth.
Look at the picture again. Sure, it’s just a meaningless coincidental arrangement of photons that only humans are likely to post endlessly about, but it does offer a fun opportunity to discuss some interesting phenomena.
The components of the face are part of a galaxy cluster with the fascinating name DSS J1038+4849 :-p. The face itself is made up of two bright and conveniently similar-looking galaxies for the eyes. There’s even a small nose galaxy in the right place.
The coolest aspect of the face though consists of several arcs of light positioned almost perfectly to give the face not only a rounded-head appearance but also a big grin found in all your classic smiley faces.
These arcs of light are produced by a phenomenon called Gravitational Lensing in which a large mass in space (like a galaxy cluster) bends the light from a more distant object in unusual ways that can distort it and even magnify it. The examples we see here are a special type of lensing called Einstein Rings. These semi-circular arcs of light require a very precise alignment between the foreground and background objects to appear so perfect.
The other thing about this face that’s so compelling is, why do we find it compelling at all? The answer of course is pareidolia and face recognition. We seem to be hard-wired to recognize faces which makes sense since we are such social primates and face-to-face interaction is our bread-and-butter (until the rise of texting and internet comments of course). This is why animating realistic CG faces is so damn difficult. We are so minutely aware of the tiniest nuances of facial expressions that even the smallest CG mistake seems wrong to us, even if we can’t quite verbalize why. There’s even a term for this; Uncanny Valley. This describes that at a certain level of fidelity, a CG face moves beyond cartoonish into the realm of photo-realism which makes the animated face look creepy somehow, almost like an animated corpse.
Pareidolia plays into this galactic smiley face as well. This is a neurological
phenomena in which people take a random visual or audio stimulus and impose order and meaning upon it when no such order or meaning exists. Common examples of this include seeing a face in a slice of toast or hearing your phone ring while taking a shower.
Faces then get a double-whammy of significance for us because not only are we adept at finding patterns in general, but we are also genetically primed to specifically see faces even from just a few lines and circles.
…even if those lines and circles are whole galaxies and gravitationally lensed light.
Images Credits:NASA/ESO; Acknowledgement: Judy Schmid
Keith Soares/Bean Creative