We’re wired to see faces such as lady in the Moon
do not know who it was that first started seeing a “man in the Moon.” Maybe one of our cave-dwelling ancestors stood on his cave porch looking at the rising full Moon and saw a face. It would only be another example of the propensity of humans to see faces in many things with just a faint resemblance to two eyes and a mouth.
All humans are prone to seeing faces and other familiar shapes in inanimate objects and we even have a name for it — “pareidolia.”
Apparently there is some evolutionary benefit in being able to recognize a friend or foe from the expression on their faces, so our brain developed the capacity to subconsciously check the faces of humans or animals and quickly determine if they are a threat. It is a survival advantage. The carryover of that talent is that we see faces in simple patterns or in diverse shapes like clouds, rock cliffs (Lion’s Head, for example) and even craters on Mars (Galle Crater, also known as the “Happy Face Crater”).
Even in the far reaches of our galaxy, there are nebulous patches that evoke faces when we look at the images. The evidence is in officially recognized names: the Clown Face or Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392 in Gemini), the Owl Nebula in Ursa Major (also known as M97), the Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118 in Eridanus the River) and the Horsehead, a dark nebula in Cygnus (the Swan).
If there is no obvious shape astronomers’ imaginations seem to leave them and they revert to labels like “Dark Doodad” or the “Larry, Moe and Curly” Galaxies. I am not kidding, these are official names too.
On the Moon, the dark areas called maria (“seas”) and lighter-coloured mountainous regions are used to see a long list of imaginary objects. There is an ant with open pincers, a rabbit (two actually), a lady reading a book (she has a flower stuck in her hat) and a Chinese man holding a bag of rice looking at the full Moon. Don’t believe me? Search Google for “lunar pareidolia.”
My favourite full Moon face however is not the Man in the Moon, which is pretty crude, but a much more beautiful “Lady in the Moon” — a female face seen in profile. She is on the right half of the Moon looking left and can be seen whenever the Moon is a bit more than half illuminated and waxing gibbous (getting more full). The pair of images supplied here shows the normal full Moon (left) and my Lady in the Moon outline on the right.
To me she is just gorgeous and on nights when her light makes faint objects like the Dark Horse or Veil Nebula not worth looking at (and forget about the faint “Three Stooges” Galaxies), she is still a welcome companion in my sky. Exploring the craters and mountains on her face with my telescope is still a nice way to fill an hour or two on a pleasant, bug-free September evening.
The jewel on her necklace is especially interesting. This is the crater Tycho with a bright splatter of fine dust that was expelled onto the Moon’s surface when the small asteroid smashed into it millions of years ago. The rays are so extensive they can be traced all the way around to the backside of the Moon. All this can be seen with the unaided eye, but try a pair of binoculars or a small telescope: spectacular.
The Lady in the Moon will be visible anytime after Sept. 28 when the Moon is at, or past its first quarter phase. She continues to shine in the sky for the Hunter’s Moon on Oct. 5, and for a few days afterwards. But during last quarter and the New Moon, the lunar Lady hides her face for a time. Not to worry, she is back again lighting our skies for the next first quarter and full phases.
Our next public viewing night scheduled for Oct. 21 at the Fox Observatory near Wiarton is purposely during a New Moon phase so we can observe faint celestial objects. But no telescopes are needed when the full Moon is bright above our horizon and the lovely Lady graces the cool autumn night sky. On a nice fall evening, she is definitely worth a look.