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Funny Looking Rock found on Mars!

When last we heard from Rhawn Joseph, he was playing with photoshop and trying to sell off his online journal, the Journal of Cosmology. The Journal of Cosmology has been plugging away, claiming to have found bacteria in meteorites and then diatoms in meteorites — give them a blurry, vague photo of some shapeless blob, and they’ll claim it looks just like something biological on Earth. Either that, or they’ll photoshop my head on to it.

Rhawn Joseph’s latest struggle: he’s suing NASA for suppressing evidence of life on Mars. His evidence is this pair of photos taken by the Mars Opportunity rover, 12 days apart, and released by NASA.

sol3540

Look! There’s a rock in the later picture that wasn’t there earlier! How did it get there? NASA’s explanations were first, speculation that it could be a meteorite, but now they seem to think that it was most likely flicked by the rover itself, as it was making a turn. That sounds reasonable to me.

But not to Rhawn Joseph! We’re missing the most obvious “fact” of all, that what appeared in the later photo was no rock at all, but a mushroom. He demands that NASA investigate thoroughly, using the power of a legal writ.

In Re RHAWN JOSEPH’S PETITION FOR A WRIT OF MANDAMUS COMPELLING NASA TO PERFORM A DUTY TO THOROUGHLY SCIENTIFICALLY EXAMINE AND INVESTIGATE A PUTATIVE BIOLOGICAL ORGANISM ON MARS IDENTIFIED/DISCOVERED BY PETITIONER AND REFERRED TO BY NASA AS: “UNLIKE ANYTHING WE HAVE SEEN BEFORE.”

How can you doubt it? He has since published his results in a “scientific journal” — his own online website — complete with side-by-side photos of the Martian Funny-Looking-Rock and earthly apothecia.

Apothecia

The “mysterious” bowl-like structure which appeared on Mars does not resemble a rock or a meteor, but a lichen fungus which on Earth is known as “Apothecia.” A magnification of the structure Sol 3540 reveals the presence of numerous “paraphyses” which are spore producing organs of Apothecium. On Earth Apothecia are commonly observed on rocks, tree limbs, or growing on the ground next to open road. Related species are known by a variety of names, such as Eastern Speckled Shield Lichen (Punctellia Bolliana). The term “shield lichen” is applied to a variety of foliose lichens. An important characteristic is their bowl-shaped growth with brown inner surfaces. These bowl shaped structures are “apothecia” and appear basically identical to the “mystery” structure depicted in Sol 3540 but which NASA wishes the public to believe is a rock or meteor which suddenly sprouted on this slab of Martian real estate.

In case you missed the similarity, here’s a photo of the Mars FLR with big red arrows and bold text pointing to the “paraphyses” — you know, just in case the visual similarity might not be as strong as Joseph claims.

paraphyses

Joseph says that if you “magnify” the image the similarities to the paraphyses of apothecia are even more apparent, which is kind of amusing: you can’t magnify the raw pixel data. All the information you get is right there. You can make it larger, but that’s not at all the same as increasing resolution.

I have used all the powers bestowed upon me with my Ph.D. to squint even harder than Rhawn Joseph at that rock, and I’m sorry, it’s a rock. It’s not a fungus or a lichen or a Happy Meal toy or Rhawn Joseph’s lost marbles, and if you look at the raw image rather than one that Joseph has pseudocolored to tint it green, it doesn’t look particularly biological.

Also, NASA already seems quite happy to investigate further.

Mr Squyres said scientists believe the rock, named "Pinnacle Island," got there when the aging rover did a pirouette turn in the dusty Martian soil and knocked loose a chunk of bedrock that rolled a short distance downhill.

"We think that in the process of that wheel moving across the ground, we kind of flicked it, kind of tiddly winked it out of the ground and it moved to the location where we see it," Mr Squyres said.

Still, scientists have not found the divet the rock would have left behind. They think it is hidden beneath one of the rover’s solar arrays.

The Opportunity team plans to manuever the robotic vehicle around a bit more to see if they can find the spot from which the rock emerged.

As to why it is such an unusual color [it’s a darker red than the surface], Mr Squyres said it may be that humans are witnessing a surface that has not been exposed in a very, very long time.

"It appears that it may have flipped itself upside down," he said.

"If that is the case, what we are seeing is we are seeing the surface, the underside of a rock, that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere for perhaps billions of years."

Already, an analysis of the rock with the Opportunity’s spectrometer has shown a "strange composition, different from anything we have seen before," he told reporters.

The rock has a lot of sulphur, along with very high concentrations of manganese and magnesium.

"We are still working this out. We are making measurements right now. This is an ongoing story of discovery," he said.

Ah, but I think you see the real problem: NASA has used data from other instruments on the rover to come to a conclusion that differs from Rhawn Joseph’s far-fetched speculation of Martian mushrooms.

Comments

  1. Moggie says

    Why would NASA want to downplay or hide evidence of life on Mars? I’m having a sciencegasm just thinking about it. It would be pretty much the biggest thing ever. If you want to look at it purely in mercenary terms, it screams “lots of jobs” and “increased funding”.

  2. Moggie says

    Or maybe NASA is all about prospecting for Martian strip-mining, and finding life would jeopardise that? Yeah, that’ll be it.

  3. tfkreference says

    I heard it was a jelly doughnut, but on my phone’s screen, it looks more like a baked potato.

  4. says

    The problem with the “extreme close-ups show” claim has to do with the algorithms used to zoom in on digital pictures. Most imaging software will allow you to zoom in on an image, then try to sharpen what remains in the visible window using interpolation. Such zooms do not show new detail — there is no such data in the image itself — but guesses as to what might be there, based on the data that is available. The more you zoom in, the more the algorithm has to guess. Eventually, the close-up takes on straight lines, or (with really good software) a fractal appearance. That is almost certainly NOT what is actually there.

  5. sqlrob says

    NASA’s explanations were first, speculation that it could be a meteorite,

    Why would the assumption be it’s a meteorite? I’d expect it to be in a crater, not just sitting on the ground there.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    what we are seeing is we are seeing the surface, the underside of a rock, that hasn’t seen the Martian atmosphere for perhaps billions of years.”

    Already, an analysis of the rock with the Opportunity’s spectrometer has shown a “strange composition, different from anything we have seen before,”

    What’s frustrating is that this incredibly cool accurate information is, apparently, not cool enough, so better make some shit up that’s cooler. Why are some people so unsatisfied with what is, after even a moment’s though, already head-boggling stuff?

  7. birgerjohansson says

    The interesting thing is the background. Obvious rock carvings.

    BTW where is the alien atmosphere processing plant I recall from “Total Recall”?

    Incidentally, when you are hunting mushrooms you have to *think* like a mushroom. “If I was a mushroom I would be hiding…THERE!” (pounce).

  8. numerobis says

    @sqlrob: A rock that size wouldn’t make much of a crater.

    It is rather odd to sue to force an organization to study a rock that it is very publicly saying it is studying. Even when an organization is in fact trying to avoid studying an issue, it’s hard to get courts to force them to do so (I’m thinking of environmental protection issues in particular).

  9. Amphiox says

    If that thing is a fungus, it’s a pretty impressive specimen, seeing as how it seems to have grown pretty quickly pushing out of what looks like a slab of solid bedrock with no disturbance around it.

    Got to say, though, this kook lacks imagination. Just a fungus? If you’re going to go with life on Mars, then go whole hog! Obviously the rock was placed their by an intelligent Martian prankster, who snuck up behing the rover when it wasn’t looking.

  10. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    Pareidolia strikes again! It isn’t amazing enough to have sent a spacecraft (at minimum) 54.6 million km away from the Earth, placed a roving, automated lab there and sent back pictures and data. No, no! There must be a cover-up involved! Because it only makes sense that NASA would want to cover-up information almost positively guaranteed to get them halfway decent funding as well as the bragging rights to having found life elsewhere in our solar system.

    Trying to get into the minds of conspiracy theorists makes my brain hurt.

  11. leftwingfox says

    Amphiox: I was just about to note that as well. It seems like impossibly odd behaviour for a mushroom given there’s no sign of an underlying mycelium (or similarly obvious organic growth) on the rock itself, and also softer soil nearby where the mycelium might conceivably be buried.

    Why it’s almost as if he has no real understanding of fungi or lichen at all!

  12. mkoormtbaalt says

    The rock has a lot of sulphur, along with very high concentrations of manganese and magnesium.

    Don’t you get it? Martian fungus is made of sulphur, manganese, and magnesium!!!!

  13. iknklast says

    I think this guy’s in my class this semester. I’ve been informed that scientists lack imagination – I guess because we test our imagination against reality and discard that which doesn’t fit, or rejigger it as fiction and enjoy it on the big screen.

  14. scienceavenger says

    What always cracks me up with these conspiracy theories is the massive level of incompetence they assume of their enemies. Do you think if NASA was going to cover up the rock-life, they’d put the bloody pics up in the first place? What’s next, a theory that Miley Cyrus is hiding something on her tongue?

  15. David Marjanović says

    Joseph says that if you “magnify” the image the similarities to the paraphyses of apothecia are even more apparent, which is kind of amusing: you can’t magnify the raw pixel data. All the information you get is right there. You can make it larger, but that’s not at all the same as increasing resolution.

    It is truly stunning how many people don’t get this. A well-known crank comes to mind immediately.

    the bragging rights to having found life elsewhere in our solar system

    What is more, earthly life on Mars. A mushroom is not an alien, it’s a mushroom! How did it get to Mars?

  16. Sastra says

    Moggie #3 wrote:

    Why would NASA want to downplay or hide evidence of life on Mars? I’m having a sciencegasm just thinking about it. It would be pretty much the biggest thing ever. If you want to look at it purely in mercenary terms, it screams “lots of jobs” and “increased funding”.

    This is a brilliant point (in the form of a question) and it seems to apply across the board to all sorts of scientific “conspiracies” to suppress evidence for a theory which, if true, would make the discoverer both rich and famous. Pharmaceutical companies know how to cure cancer but don’t want to. Biologist know that evolution is false but won’t say so. And so forth. Science works by rewarding amazing new paradigms, not by eliminating heresies — assuming you’ve got a case which can persuade skeptics and not just a bunch of ‘arguments’ which are only convincing to the already convinced.

    Conspiracy theories work a lot then like religion. I have friends who endorse a lot of these perplexing views in which someone who would normally be said to profit by something is instead behaving as if the profit would be the other way. When I ask Moggie’s reasonable question — why would the scientists (or corporations) want to downplay or hide evidence which is the very bread and butter of their existence? — I get the same sort of answer they give when they explain why people don’t believe in God: fear.

    Sure, they’ll maybe come up with some rationalizations like Moggie’s #4 — elaborate on the conspiracy theory — but when push comes to shove they think skeptics refuse to believe in exciting, wonderful, amazing things because we are afraid of venturing out of the safe comfort zone of our dull certainties. Doubt is how we deal with our cowardice. As iknklast #18 says the Believers believe that we are afraid to imagine the possibilities and then accept truth.

    Faith casts off such fears in order to first imagine and then accept the Truth. Brave maverick believers daring to dream and discover.

    I’m not sure then if religion is a kind of conspiracy theory … or if conspiracy theories are a kind of religion. Could make a case either way, I think.

  17. vaiyt says

    Joseph says that if you “magnify” the image the similarities to the paraphyses of apothecia are even more apparent

    By that he means the image gets more blurry so it’s easier to project anything on it.

  18. jimnorth says

    You guys are all wrong. There’s a music group on Mars…see…look very closely at the photo…to be a rock and not to roll…

  19. Blondin says

    Here’s a theory: it’s not a mushroom, it’s a foil wrapper from a Hershey’s Kiss, carelessly discarded by one of the technicians working in the studio where the fake Mars exploration videos are recorded.

    Kidding! I’m just kidding!

  20. robro says

    I suppose NASA hadn’t considered a growing mushroom because the Martian cows hadn’t grazed in that area in a while nor had it rained recently.

    sqlrob @#8

    I’d expect it to be in a crater, not just sitting on the ground there.

    I believe their thinking was it might be a fragment of a meteorite that struck near by.

    tfkreference @#5

    I heard it was a jelly doughnut…

    Per the APOD and other sources, “Jelly Donut [sic]” is the rock’s nickname around the shop because of the white rim and reddish center…and you wonder what’s on the minds of those engineers.

    And a happy 10th birthday to Opportunity. That’s a pretty good run for a machine intended to work for just 90 days.

  21. says

    #24, Naked Bunny with a Whip:

    It goes deeper than you can imagine. Mars=Manly, Masculine, Military. Venus=Feminine, Womanly, Nurturing.

    This isn’t just a conspiracy to suppress science. It’s misandry!!!!

  22. says

    Looks like a rock to me. I am a part-time miner and have been a rock collector for a couple of decades. Yep, I’ve seen many rocks with “organic” or “bowl” shapes.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Sure, they’ll maybe come up with some rationalizations like Moggie’s #4 — elaborate on the conspiracy theory — but when push comes to shove they think skeptics refuse to believe in exciting, wonderful, amazing things because we are afraid of venturing out of the safe comfort zone of our dull certainties. Doubt is how we deal with our cowardice. As iknklast #18 says the Believers believe that we are afraid to imagine the possibilities and then accept truth.

    …which is a really amazing projection.

    I’m not sure then if religion is a kind of conspiracy theory … or if conspiracy theories are a kind of religion. Could make a case either way, I think.

    + 1

  24. robro says

    But, PZ, you don’t need all that snow and ice which might obscure a crater. Here’s a shot of a meteorite on the ground in the Sahara. This fragment is from the meteorite that NASA tracked coming in over Africa in 2009.

  25. chip says

    If you’re going to go with life on Mars, then go whole hog! Obviously the rock was placed their by an intelligent Martian prankster, who snuck up behing the rover when it wasn’t looking.

    My husband joked about exactly this last night, and we considered a scenario where a similar alien probe landed on Earth and we decided to play pranks on it. “Everybody hide!” “Let’s dress this cockroach up in a three-piece suit and make it look like the dominant species!” And so forth.

  26. says

    The New Yorker featured a cartoon in which a bunch of martians (or astronauts from another country?) snuck up on the rover and stripped all the wheels.

  27. Moggie says

    Of course, someone always has to link to that xkcd, and I… get something in my eye all over again.

  28. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    How did it get to Mars?

    It hitchhiked, obviously. Best way to see the galaxy.

  29. =8)-DX says

    What is more, earthly life on Mars. A mushroom is not an alien, it’s a mushroom! How did it get to Mars?

    This one’s easy. Fungi were the first terrestrial organisms to create a Type I civilization. Doh! (And I have a theory, which is mine, that they are part of the greys’ Type II civilization, but aren’t letting on!)

  30. A momentary lapse... says

    This one’s easy. Fungi were the first terrestrial organisms to create a Type I civilization.

    Clear nonsense. As everyone should know, fungi are in fact space-travelling organisms native to the planet Yuggoth. This is the only possible explanation that accounts for them being on both Earth and Mars.

  31. zetopan says

    #14 Amphiox said: “If you’re going to go with life on Mars, then go whole hog!”

    It has already been done. Some yours ago I found a website (http://www.xenotechresearch.com) claiming
    that NASA was hiding the fact that there were obviously fossilized echinoderms on Mars. That same web
    site (now unused) had lots of photos showing the obvious evidence. The author of this pseudoscience was
    actually being paid to conduct his “research” by a wealthy but scientific illiterate benefactor. This author
    has since been “knighted” by the same benefactor, who bought a Scottish lordship.

    Sadly, the original website no longer contains all of the original text and photos, but the original author is now
    peddling a book with all of the details (http://www.shultslaboratories.com/CoastPage16.htm) Did I mention
    (or even have to) that Shultz is a profoundly scientifically illiterate computer programmer?

    Also see: http://peswiki.com/index.php/Directory:Xenotech_Research

  32. says

    … it’s a foil wrapper from a Hershey’s Kiss, carelessly discarded by one of the technicians working in the studio where the fake Mars exploration videos are recorded.

    Huh. I was just thinking ‘alien candy wrapper’.

    (/Dang bug-eyed litterbug aliens.)

  33. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    And a happy 10th birthday to Opportunity. That’s a pretty good run for a machine intended to work for just 90 days.

    Then it’s a free thimblefull of 10-day-old gr*g or a glass of swill at the Pharyngula Saloon and Spanking Parlor, Patricia, Princess of Pullets, Proprietor.

  34. says

    As everyone should know, fungi are in fact space-travelling organisms native to the planet Yuggoth

    If anyone is familiar with Terence McKenna, they might remember that he proposed something similar, in all seriousness. He postulated that since mushrooms create wide mycelial networks, sometimes contain chemicals that are related to some neurotransmitters, and produce spores that can survive through the vacuum of space, they were in fact an extraterrestrial life form.
    He figured that some alien species had deliberately engineered itself to become fungi, in order to overcome the problems of interstellar travel. He also thought that the psychoactive properties of some mushrooms were actually the mushrooms trying to communicate with us.

    Of course, Terence was first and foremost a storyteller and often played a bit fast and loose with the evidence. I have a severe soft spot for him, but there’s no denying that he relied more on wild speculations than fact checking. He collaborated with Rupert Sheldrake on several occasions, which might give you a hint about how seriously to take him (if that wasn’t already clear).

  35. says

    It’s a mushroom, alright. And Mars is just a big pizza, hence the color.
    Good scientific word, “hence.” Obviously I know what I’m talking about.