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Seeing Satan in Rising Smoke: Math to the Rescue

We know that one of our goals is to help students connect mathematics with the real world. Some efforts might be zealous over-extensions.

For example, some people claim that photos of the 2001 World Trade Center fire show a face in the rising smoke--unfortunately, it also is claimed to be the face of Satan.

So, Vladik Kreinovich and Dima Iourinski, two computer scientists at UT-El Paso decided to use mathematics to investigate this phenomena. It is called "Pareidol," the technical term for our tendency to see specific images in physical phenomena (e.g. clouds).

Using techniques from geometric analysis such as symmetry and transformations (rotation and reflection), they analyzed the photographs carefully. Their conclusion was that the smoke was akin to an inverted cone.

Then, using statistical physics, they predicted the possible pertubations of the smoke (to form "lines"), which were then analyzed using the geometry of group structures. Their conclusion, the observed lines in the "face image" were predictable geometrical perturbations associated with any rising column of smoke from a fire. That is, it was not the face of Satan, and we can rest easy thanks to the power of mathematics!

I should add that this research was supported by federal funds (NASA). So beware, like the control of info regarding the UFOs that land regularly, the government might be doing a cover-up on this....you can read the final report.