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Brains on Vacation

SETI Logo A monthly segment on the SETI Institute's "Are We Alone" radio show, dealing with synaptic lapses in scientific thinking.

Brains on Vacation Archive

Current Episode: May 1, 2005

Mary, Mary, Where Ya Goin' To? 1

Have you ever looked at the clouds, and seen faces in them? If you're human (no guarantees here!) you probably have. It's such a common ocurrence that psychologists even have a term for it: pareidolia 2.

We all know it's a coincidence, right? Right? 3 It's even happened to me: I once saw the face of Lenin in my shower curtain. Really! But I knew it was a coincidence.

But not everyone is as skeptical as I am, especially if the face or figure happens to align with people's pre-existing beliefs. And if you're talking beliefs, you're talking religion. So -- you guessed it -- people tend to see their religious figures in random patterns.

Jesus in the Eagle Nebula? Jesus is a favorite, obviously, and has been seen in a giant cosmic cloud of dust and gas (right) and various other out-of-the-way places. But his mom tends to pop up too-- Mary's been seen in a glass pane, and, well, lots of places (there's even a website,, to keep you up-to-date on Her visits).

You be the judge: Bain, or cheese? Remember when Mary appeared in a grilled cheese sandwich? That sold for $28,000 grilled cheese sandwich on eBay. Although it was supposed to be Mary in the sandwich, it looks more to me like Space:1999 actress Barbara Bain). You be the judge.

The Virgin Mother, or something else? The latest appartion of Mary is a bit odd, especially for someone who is believed by many to be the mother of God. I can think of lots of places to turn up, but really-- a concrete support for an overpass in Chicago?

Yes, you read that correctly. At the Fullerton Ave. underpass on Chicago's Kennedy Expressway, in April of 2005, some say the Holy Mother has appeared. To me, this looks more like, oh, say, a salt stain. You get that exact pattern of stain when something washes down from above and hits a little bump as it flows. Note that in the picture, you can see the concrete splits just where the "apparition" begins at the top. And, of course, with winter just ending salt is still all over the Chicago roads.

But why think it's just that, when it might be a Sign from Heaven? Maybe it was because it was so close to Easter. Or maybe Passover, since it's an overpass and all.

In the low-resolution image seen here, it kinda sorta looks like the typical way Mary is depicted, with a flowing robe and tilted head. But when you see the higher res version (click the picture -- and note the graffiti to the left of the stain) the resemblance fades. But that hasn't stopped hundreds of faithful from visiting and leaving flowers and such as tribute.

I gently suggest they save their money and time. If I were some religious icon (there's still time!) then I wouldn't bother with Chicago in the early spring. I would appear in Hawaii, or someplace nice, like Kate Beckinsale's pillow. Or her pillow in Hawaii.

You get the picture.

Some Appropriate Links

1) With apologies to The Monkees
2) That's probably pronounced "pare - eye - DOE - lee - uh", by the way.
3) Right?

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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