Conspiracy site UFO Sightings Daily has already been quite busy in 2018, announcing that recent NASA photos of the surface of Mars have provided evidence of seashells along with numerous alien structures and statues including an Egyptian sphinx. Since a number of tabloids and conspiracy-friendly destinations around the internet have gleefully begun spreading the good word, let’s take a moment to set the scientific record straight.
“I found evidence of an ancient ocean today,” wrote Scott C. Waring, UFO Sightings Daily’s proprietor, before describing the physical attributes of the purported seashells. “This is not the first time a seashell has been found on Mars, but closer to being the 15th time. Just go to google, and search Seashell on Mars. It will surprise you.”
This is the point at which you may imagine a narrator voiceover telling you, in a grave voice, that it will not surprise you. A current Google search for such seashells shows (aside from the recent flurry of news spawned by Waring’s new announcement) that people have indeed been claiming to see them on Mars for some time.
The most concise explanation for this is that Mars is a giant rock, on the surface of which sits a high volume of tiny rocks; so way more than 15 of them are likely going to look sort of like seashells. Last year, after U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked members of a NASA panel to comment on whether there were ancient civilizations on Mars’ surface, NASA project scientist Ken Farley diplomatically stated that there was no such evidence and that its existence would be “extremely unlikely.”
There is indeed evidence of an ancient ocean on Mars, but Waring was not the one who found it. NASA scientists announced in 2015 that a liquid ocean had once covered nearly one-fifth of the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere—meaning it contained more water than the Earth’s own Arctic Ocean. The presence of liquid water on the Red Planet is one of the factors that makes it among the most promising places in our solar system to search for signs of microscopic life, according to NASA.
“The evidence of alien life is in most photos of Mars and other planets, but the work must be put in to find the details,” Waring wrote. On that one, we might be able to agree.
Waring, who once claimed on his site that an “ancient head” had been found on Mars resembling then-President Obama’s (I mean, see for yourself, but suffice to say it does not) mysteriously shut down his site for a period of 2017, according to the Houston Chronicle. However, he returned shortly after and has been going about business as usual for some time now.
The scientific name for the common phenomenon of seeing shapes and designs where there are none is pareidolia. Our brains see a blank canvas, like clouds or tea leaves or the surface of the moon or Mars, and autocomplete with imagery that is familiar to us to help make sense of them. Understandably, it’s something that comes up with NASA photos quite a lot.