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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Screaming Demon in an Icelandic Nightmare

By Phil Plait

Over the week I've been posting pictures from nature of objects that look creepy to our human eyes and brains. A ghostly salty lake, a nebula like a chain of spirits chasing some hapless victim (or perhaps even more disconcerting, fleeing from something even worse), and a flower that appears as a harbinger of doom. But my favorite example of this has to be this picture below, a nightmarish face that is the personification of evil:

This picture is seriously freaky, poking at things deep in the basest and darkest parts of our brains. Is it a demon, screaming into the night? The tortured soul of someone lost between worlds?

Actually, itâs a little of both, and neither. Amazingly, itâs an image of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, back when it was erupting in 2010. This is not a picture taken with visible light (the kind our eyes see), but is actually made up of Icelandic Coastal Patrol radar measurements of the mountain! Three large craters, 200-500 meters across, make up the agonized âfaceâ of the volcano, and the peak in the middle makes a perfect, if wicked, nose.

That volcanic eruption disrupted travel and industry for days, with a total impact cost of several billion dollars. I was rather astonished to hear that it caused no direct human death, though many cattle died during the eruption.

Metaphorically, a demon screaming in the night isnât such a bad description of a volcano, and it does represent an object influenced by two worlds: the Earthâs mantle, and the crust through which itâs punctured.

Of course, thatâs more whimsy than fact. Still, itâs fun to let our imaginations roam a little freely when viewing images like this. Interpreting scientific images isnât always just a matter of tables of numbers and the application of complex equations; it takes real imagination, sometimes, to probe the subtleties of what is seen. Flashes of insight should not be discounted when examining scienceâ¦and of course, when an image appeals to our more artistic nature, itâs far easier to lead people into understanding it.

In fact, Iâve put together a gallery of Halloween-themed astronomical images to delight you and perhaps creep you out just a wee bit⦠because itâs also fun.

So, boo! Happy Halloween, BABloggees.

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