I have just started reading A Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe by Steven Novella, and although I am only part-way through it I can see already that it is an important book, as well as being an entertaining read. He starts by getting us to question how we know the things that we think we know, and also by illustrating all the ways that the brain can be fooled.
I learnt a new word from the book today – pareidolia, which is the tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something familiar. We are all familiar with the phenomenon, seeing shapes and animals in clouds or in flickering flames, and most of all seeing faces. Our brains are wired up to detect patterns, and so it is very easy to see patterns that aren’t there.
Or hear them. My mother brought me up to enjoy listening to music. She used to put the gramophone under my pram to get me used to noises because she didn’t want to be creeping around the house for fear of waking the baby. I don’t know whether this had anything to do with the deep love of music that I now have (she didn’t do anything similar to my brother, who grew up to be a semi-professional guitarist in between his main job as a ballet dancer). As soon as I was old enough to operate the gramophone myself I would spend a lot of time listening to records, and when I was about 9 or 10 somebody gave me one entitled Children’s TV Themes. In some ways I found it a bit disappointing, as all the tunes were covers played by an orchestra, and they certainly couldn’t do justice to Dr Who in comparison to the original by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which managed to sound creepy and futuristic long before Robert Moog (pronounced to rhyme with vogue) invented his voltage-controlled synthesiser. However, there was one moment where an upward swoop on the saxophones and trombones sounded remarkably like my mother calling my name “Julian!”, and no matter how many times I listened it always caught me by surprise.
When I was a medical SHO in Watford in 1990 I had the worst clock-radio in the world. The sound was remarkable for the level of distortion, and the alarm was a sort of over-amplified scream of the sort that you might get if you sat on a delicate oscillator. It was so terrible that I had to listen to Radio 4 in the morning instead of Radio 3, as speech was more intelligible than music. One morning I found myself getting dressed to a BBC news item about a holy aubergine that had been discovered in Bolton. For the benefit of Americans I should say that an aubergine is what you call and egg-plant. (Curiously, in China you might be asked to say “egg-plant” instead of “cheese” when you are having your photograph taken, the Mandarin for aubergine being 茄子 (qiézi in pinyin, which sounds something like “cheezuh” with a rising tone on the first syllable).) Actually if you want to look sexy in a photograph you should say “plinth”. Coming back to Bolton, it seems that a miracle was announced when Ruksana and Salim Patel cut an aubergine in half and saw that the arrangement of seeds spelled one of the Islamic names of God in Arabic, rather like a stick of Brighton rock. Within hours their house had become a place of pilgrimage, and the Patels could hardly believe that they had been so blessed. There is a report in the Bolton News.
Ever since then I started to look out for similar miraculous relics. I found the skull of a water buffalo in South Africa with the name of Jesus partly written in the sutures between the bones:
Stranger still were the messages and images that we seem to carry within us, that can only be revealed by a CT or MRI scan, which sections the body into virtual slices just as you might prepare an aubergine.
I have seen the face of Jesus, revealed by a prostatectomy:
I have also seen the face of a politician, the late Robin Cook MP, in an MRI scan of an endometrial tumour, though I didn’t think to photograph it. But what about Darth Vader?
Stools and wind in the rectum can be a source of smiley faces and other meaningful shapes. There ought to be a name for them – manureji perhaps?
I saw this picture in a restaurant in Venice. It wasn’t very well attached to the wall, and from my rather oblique viewpoint it looked like Her Majesty the Queen.
Nature takes advantage of this phenomenon in the form of protective mimicry, where a tasty small creature might deter a predator by pretending to be something much larger and more fierce. There are many examples, but I have a couple of my own here which have not, as far as I know, been previously described. This one is a not-very-good photograph of a goldcrest (or maybe a firecrest – it isn’t really good enough to tell them apart), Britain’s smallest bird. The only reason I didn’t delete it is that it is the only time I have ever seen one at my home in Wiltshire so I needed proof. If you squint at it you might imagine that the wing tip looks a bit like a beak, and the spot behind it resembles an eye, so the whole effect is of a much larger bird partially glimpsed through the vegetation.
This photograph of a butterfly in New Zealand shows something that I have never seen or heard about within the area of protective mimicry. I think it is a common copper (Lycaena salustius) though there are several similar species and I am not an expert in antipodean lepidoptera. When it is perched with its wings spread apart there is nothing remarkable in the markings, but when it half-closes them the foreshortening reveals a pair of snake-like eyes staring at you. New Zealand has never had any native snakes, so it must be pretending to be something else, but nevertheless the effect is quite striking. This stretching-out of an image so that it is only visible when seen end on is called anamorphism, and is commonly used to improve the legibility of signs painted on roads. The striking pavement images of the artist Alysia are another example, and there is a very strange protrait in the National Gallery in London known as The Ambassadors, painted by Hans Holbein in 1533, with an anamorphic skull stretched across the lower half of the canvas.
But this is the first time I have ever seen anamorphic protective mimicry.
Isn’t Nature strange?