NGC 2169, a small cluster of stars about 3,000 light years away... that's coincidentally shaped like the number 37. Credit: ScottRak on Wikimedia Commons
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NGC 2169, a small cluster of stars about 3,000 light years away... that's coincidentally shaped like the number 37. Credit: ScottRak on Wikimedia Commons

We were wrong the whole time about '42'

Contributed by
Nov 29, 2019

If you've been following me online for any amount of time — like literally a single day — then you know I love cool astronomical pictures.

If you've been following me for a bit longer, then you may also be aware I delight in examples of pareidolia, random or semi-random patterns that our brains interpret as something else, like faces in clouds.

This happens in astronomy a lot, since we have gas clouds, galaxies, and more, scattered around or shaped by cosmic forces such that we see them as more familiar things. That's how we can have the Horsehead Nebula, the Witch Head Nebula, the Coat Hanger Cluster, and more.

So how, over my entire life under these two influences, have I never heard of NGC 2169?

What's that, you ask? Well, it's a small cluster of stars over 3,000 light years away in the constellation of Orion. Normally that wouldn't be worth commenting on, except for its shape … and here's a hint: It's nicknamed the 37 Cluster.

NGC 2169, a small cluster of stars about 3,000 light years away... that's coincidentally shaped like the number 37. Credit: ScottRak on Wikimedia Commons

WHAT THE WHAT. LOOK AT IT. LOOK. IT'S A 37. MADE OF STARS.

This is so freaking cool! One of the best examples of non-biologic pareidolia I've ever seen. Seeing faces and stuff is common, and it's hypothesized our brains are wired to see faces in the simplest of patterns (like a smiley face icon, which is just two dots and a curved line, as reductive a pattern as it could be). So seeing full-blown Arabic numerals like this is just terrific.

I guess 42 isn't the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.

Of course, it's an illusion, or at least a coincidence. These stars are all at slightly different distances from us, so if we saw it from a different angle they would look different, and the pareidolia would be destroyed.

… but I wonder. What if we discover interstellar travel, and we find out that no matter where they see it from, every civilization in the galaxy sees this cluster as representing their version of 37? Something like that would drive a creature to drink, preferably a Ouisghian Zodah.


P.S. I found this on the Earth Science Picture of the Day, which notes it's an emirp, something else the existence of which I was unaware.

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