The Screaming Demon in an Icelandic Nightmare

Contributed by
Oct 31, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

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, it’s a little of both, and neither. Amazingly, it’s 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 “face” 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 isn’t such a bad description of a volcano, and it does represent an object influenced by two worlds: the Earth’s mantle, and the crust through which it’s punctured.

Of course, that’s more whimsy than fact. Still, it’s fun to let our imaginations roam a little freely when viewing images like this. Interpreting scientific images isn’t 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 science…and of course, when an image appeals to our more artistic nature, it’s far easier to lead people into understanding it.

In fact, I’ve put together a gallery of Halloween-themed astronomical images to delight you and perhaps creep you out just a wee bit… because it’s also fun.

So, boo! Happy Halloween, BABloggees.