The Face on Mars
"The aliens aren't contacting us because we're so bad."
Face? or pile of rocks?
TCS: Well, what about alien visitation thousands or millions of years ago?
What about faces and pyramids?
Seth: You mean on Mars?
TCS: On Mars.
Seth: Well, they look like faces, until you take high-resolution photos, and
then they look like mountains. And mountains on Mars are not quite as
remarkable. I have to admit that certain individuals have gotten a fairly
decent living out of this idea. I can't begrudge them that too much. But
really, have you seen the high-resolution photos of the face on Mars?
TCS: Yes, I have.
Seth: And what did they look like to you? A face?
TCS: It looked like a bunch of rocks.
Seth: Doesn't it? Maybe that's what it is. I know it is radical.
TCS: I have associates who would swear that with the high-resolution photos it
looked more like a face. I didn't see it.
Seth: I don't see it either. People send me pictures of clouds and they say,
"Look what's in this cloud! It's a picture of a guy sitting on a horse. This
is clearly alien activity." People do that. And indeed, if you sit around and
look at clouds you will see things. But it's a big step to say that it's alien
I have to say, when the local paper, the Mercury News, called me up the night
before the Mars Global Surveyor was going to take its first high-resolution
photos of the face on Mars, they said "Well Seth, what do you think they're
gonna find?" "Well, I don't think they're going to find bulldozers all around
or whatever. I think that this is akin to going to Safeway and buying a
ten-pound bag of potatoes and looking at those potatoes. And you'll see faces
in there, but it would never occur to you that this is an attempt by the spuds
to get in touch." And she ran it just like that too, by the way.
Mark: So you see faces in things. Do you think that's something that humans are
hardwired to do?
Seth: You're wired to do that. Of course you are. Because it has a lot of
survival value, to be able to quickly recognize faces. If not, you could get
hit on the head, someone's going to bop you on the head because you're futzing
with their wife or whatever. Clearly, in any social situation, you've got to
be able to recognize individuals. Look at monkeys; they can recognize
individuals. Ants probably can't. But they don't have to very much. But in a
real social environment there's tremendous survival value in it.
You know, they do experiments. In Scientific American they did this years ago,
where they take a picture of Lincoln or something. Everybody knows this guy.
And what they did is they just pixellated it, they just reduced it to, like, 16
pixels or 25 pixels or something, some small number of pixels. They made a 128
pixel version and a 64 pixel version, and they would show this to people and
they'd say, "Can you tell who that is?" "Oh, it's Lincoln." Okay. Then they'd
give them the low-resolution version, see how many could tell that was still
Lincoln. And it turns out you could tell it was Lincoln even when the number
of pixels was really small; I don't remember the number. Which means that your
brain is really good at recognizing faces.
So the fact that you faces on the rocks on Mars, that doesn't surprise me. If
anybody saw vacuum cleaners on the rocks on Mars, that would surprise me.
Because you're not so good at that. But they don't, they find faces. They find
the one thing that we're really good at finding.
Siduri: Do you think SETI is a service to society?
Seth: Is it a service? No, I don't
think of it as a service, but I think that
it's something that's very human. In the sense that one of the few things that
distinguishes us perhaps from other animals, to some extent, is curiosity. We
certainly are driven a lot by curiosity. And there are plenty of animals that
have a certain amount of curiosity, because curiosity has survival value. But
we turn curiosity to our advantage. When we learn something, we take advantage
of that knowledge, because we can pass knowledge on. It's like any other basic
research. It's knowledge for its own sake, and for the curiosity of wanting to
Why does anybody want to know how the maria on the moon got formed? Who cares?
But the fact is that people are interested, and in the end, that knowledge in
the aggregate always pays off. In that sense it will be a service, if you
found something. Either you would be in touch with a very advanced
civilization, which is one possibility, or you don't understand anything but
at least you know that there are others out there, and that gives you
Sort of like the Copernican revolution. What do you care whether the Earth
goes around the sun or the other way round? Didn't make much difference in the
prediction of the planets in the night sky, actually. So it didn't have much
practical benefit right away. But it turned out to be a service, if you will,
to humanity to know.
Mark: If an advanced alien society were to come in contact with us, would you be
embarrassed about humanity in its current state?
Seth: No. No, no, no, no. That's sort of a provincial point of view, that the
aliens aren't contacting us because we're so bad. Why didn't they contact us
back in the year 1100—we weren't destroying the environment then? "Well, we
were bad, because we were conducting the Crusades." Okay, okay. How about back
in the time of Julius Caesar—nobody was destroying the environment then;
there weren't enough people to have any effect on the environment. "Yeah, but
they were at war with the Phoenicians, those bad guys." We're always doing bad
stuff. So to say now it's the environment, well, I mean, there's plenty to
worry about as far at the environment, but I don't think they'd be too worried
about what we do with our earth. Remember Michael Rennie?
[general noises of dissent]
Seth: The Day the Earth Stood Still? Well, you're all too young to remember
him. It was a film, back in...
TCS: "Michael Rennie was there the day the earth stood still, and he told us
where we stand." That's right.
Seth: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. He stands there up at the end and says [in
tinny voice] "What you people do with your own planet is of no concern to us.
But when you threaten the galactic..." Whatever. And you get these big robots
coming down and they're like mom, they're going to take you in hand. No, I
don't think they care so much what we do. It's like, why do we care? I don't
care what the ants do in their own anthills. They're probably wrecking things
down there but it just doesn't really phase me much. So I wouldn't be