Say cheese: Galaxies caught smiling for the camera?

Eric Hopton for – Your Universe Online

At the center of this image, captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, two faint galaxies look like they realize they are being photographed and give a cheesy smile–like celebs on the red carpet.

According to the imaginative guys on the news desk at NASA/ESA, “You can make out two orange eyes and a white button nose.” Just so the whole thing doesn’t get too cutesy, the Hubble team remind us that, in the case of this particular “happy face”, the two eyes are galaxies with the less than cuddly names SDSSCGB 8842.3 and SDSSCGB 8842.4. Meanwhile, the “misleading smile lines” are actually arcs caused by an effect known as strong gravitational lensing.

This is an effect in which gravity distorts the image and that is strong enough to produce multiple images, arcs, or even Einstein rings in which the deformation of the light from a source such as a galaxy or star into a circular shape.

What we are seeing is the effect of massive structures in the Universe exerting a gravitational pull that is so powerful it warps the space-time around them. We see that Universe through cosmic lenses which magnify, distort and bend the light behind them.

It’s not really a smile then

In this special case of gravitational lensing, an Einstein Ring is produced from this bending of light, a consequence of the exact and symmetrical alignment of the source, lens and observer and resulting in the ring-like structure we see here.

This object was studied by Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) as part of a survey of strong lenses.

Of all the fantastic stuff captured by Hubble’s cameras, this has to be one of the weirdest and most uncanny.

It might just be an optical illusion caused by the real-life effects of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but that face does actually look like, well a face. And, even with our best scientific heads on, every time we here at redOrbit look at it, we see something different. Is it just us, or do you think have those eyes got an evil twinkle, a malevolent menacing look? And that grin seems to be all Hannibal Lecter with the Chablis on ice, or maybe there’s a touch of “Johnny” Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.

Hold on just a minute this is going too far. We are allowing ourselves to indulge in a well-documented neurological phenomenon known as pareidolia. This is when normal rational people like, well, redOrbit staff see faces or other images in inanimate objects. It’s all down to evolution – as a survival technique, we need to recognize human faces in poor light or at a distance and to quickly resolve images into something we understand. Is it friend or is it foe?

The process has been understood for a long time though the term pareidolia is fairly recent. Leonardo da Vinci used pareidolia as an artistic device and wrote “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.” Go Leo. What would he have made of SDSSCGB 8842.3 and SDSSCGB 8842.4 and their lascivious grin?


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