THE BLOG

Can You See the Man in the Moon?

02/13/2012 02:13 pm 14:13:12 | Updated Apr 14, 2012

Last week, I mentioned that I was working on creating "Solar System Buddies" (cute cartoon versions of the sun, moon and planets to color that feature information about our solar system) to give to kids who came to my astronomy club's public observing nights. While the clouds this Wednesday meant Public Night was cancelled, my friends still enjoyed seeing the finished products.

While examining my cartoon of the moon, my friend Shannon remarked, "This one looks a little weird, because the moon already has a face."

"Well, they all have faces." I said, because I had drawn cartoon faces on all of the worlds represented in the set.

"I know, but you could have drawn the features to be where the Man in the Moon's are." She said.

"Oh." I said.

But the truth was, if I'd done that, I wouldn't have known where to draw the eyes, nose, or mouth in my cartoon.

Because I've never seen a face when I look at the moon.

The fancy, scientific name for seeing patterns or pictures in nature where none exist is pareidolia. This is what's happening when we think that the features on the moon look like a face, that a cloud looks like a dog, that the state of Michigan looks like a mitten, or that the holes in an electrical socket look like a surprised face.

As someone who likes to think they have a pretty good imagination, I've always had a lot of fun with pareidolia. When I was in elementary school, and we were learning geography, I liked to look for shapes in borders and coastlines. I could see why the Native Americans who had first lived on Long Island called it "Fish-Shaped Island" -- it really was! (Cuba, on the other hand, is more squid-shaped, and Crete will always be dragon-shaped to me.) I think that Scotland looks like a fairy with a funky hairdo tearing up a piece of paper, while England looks like a person wearing a hooded cloak.

But, try as I might, I just do not see a face when I look at the moon. Given my interest in archeology and mythology, I'd like to say that I can see the rabbit that the ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Aztecs thought they saw, but I really can't.

So what DO I see when I look at the moon? To me, the maria (the dark patches, they're ancient lava plains) look like the dark half of a ying-yang symbol, with the Copernicus crater as the white dot. Through binoculars or a telescope, the Tycho crater always reminds me of photos of cities from airplanes, with its bright rays streaking out like highways from a city center. (Although I understand what Amanda Peterson's character in Can't Buy Me Love meant when she said it looked like a star sapphire.)

I'm a little bit better with constellations -- with most of them, I can see the shapes of the characters they're named for, at least back at home where there's less light pollution. Orion looks like a person to me, and Taurus like a bull. Draco looks like a serpentine Chinese dragon snaking his way around the North Star. In the summer, I can make out another monster -- Scorpius looks like a scorpion lurking in the southern sky. Also on summer nights, I love to look up at Cygnus the swan flying through the Milky Way. When I visited Australia, I never had any trouble finding the Southern Cross after the first time it was shown to me.

Asterisms are unofficial constellations -- patterns of stars people recognize in the sky other than the 88 official constellations. The most famous of these are the Big and Little Dipper -- they're actually part of the larger constellations Ursa Major and Minor, the Great and Small Bears. The Dippers look clearly enough like ladles or spoons to me, and through binoculars, the stars of the Pleiades cluster form the shape of an even littler dipper -- when I first started stargazing, I called them the "mini-dipper".

Near the dippers, if the sky is dark enough, I can see the extra star that turns Cassiopeia from an "M" shape into a queen seated on a throne -- in Boston, though, she's just an "M", "W", "3", or "Sigma", depending on the time of night. The stars that form the "head" of Leo the lion look like a backwards-facing question mark to me, although once I find that, I can make out the lion's whole body. I can find the "Summer Triangle" that connects the bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb easily, as well as the Great or Winter Hexagon now visible in the southwest. And, following the advice of my high school astronomy teacher Mr. Seltzer, I always see Perseus as a Fleur-de-Lys.

What about you? Do you see a man in the moon, a rabbit, or something else entirely? And do you have any personal asterisms?