What creates the ‘man in the moon’?

Ask Tom Why
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Dear Tom,

What features on the surface of the moon cause the shadings that create the “man in the moon”? I see the image every time there is a full moon.

— Jamie Rears

Dear Jamie,

The “man in the moon” is an illusion familiar in many cultures. It is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon in which our brain interprets random images as something recognizable. In the case of the moon, astronomer Daniel Joyce tells us the darker-appearing areas on the face of the full moon are believed to be huge lava-filled craters, now cooled, remaining from massive asteroid impacts. The patches of dark terrain, called lunar maria — literally “lunar seas” — combine to form a human face. The eyes are the Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenittis, the nose is the Sinus Aestuum and the mouth is the Mare Nubium and Mare Cognitum.


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