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European Space Agency image of the flank of Olympus Mons shows the same dendritic ridges seen in our
Picture of the Day for November 22nd. But here, the accumulated digital information has permitted ESA to
show the ridge network from a side view—one way to avoid seeing ridges as ravines, a common trick of the eye.
 Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Nov 27
, 2006
Dendritic Ridges—Eye of the Beholder

Some of our readers have reported difficulty in seeing the dendritic ridges of the Olympus Mons caldera and steep escarpment. Here, we offer a few suggestions that should permit the ridge network to leap out at the viewer.

On November 22nd we presented an ESA (European Space Agency) close-up image of the flank of Olympus Mons. The image reveals sharply cut dendritic ridges running down the flank in a pattern that has defied geologic explanation. The tree-like form of the branching is pointed downward like an embossment on the escarpment.

Then, on November 24th, we offered a remarkably similar image of dendritic branching on the wall of the Olympus Mons “caldera.” Here, too, no useful scientific explanation has been forthcoming. In both instances, the electric model anticipates the form as fulgurite-like hardened or glassy branches of a Lichtenberg figure, typical of electric discharge.

Not everyone visiting our site, however, has detected the ridges, despite the fact that once they are seen, they stand out in stark relief as the dominating forms in the imaged topography. Understandably, this has created an issue in the minds of some as to whether the ridges are really there. And the answer is, yes, they are undeniably there. Moreover, the trick of the eye that can prevent one from seeing them is an excellent example of how conditioned mental references can obscure perception.

Because the image above shows the dendritic ridges of the Olympus Mons scarp from a side view, the number of “automatic brain references” that must be overcome is reduced, making it easier to see the ridges as ridges. To facilitate this process further, we have placed arrows pointing to several of the more prominent ridges. The lone arrow on the right ends precisely at a dominating ridge that exhibits a series of clearly visible branches. On the left, we see bifurcating ridges, the first bifurcation beginning at the summit of the cliff. The remaining two arrows point to ridges associated with further bifurcation, the lowest arrow pointing to a ridge that bifurcates once more just below the arrow. Clearly, these ridges protrude from the escarpment, separating them (the ridges) into their brightly illuminated and shadowy components.

We have found that for many individuals, there is no issue here at all. They see the ridges immediately as ridges, and are puzzled that some folks only see ravines. But the problem of perception is actually quite common when people are viewing either ridges or craters, channels, or other depressions on the Moon or Mars. It will appear as if they are raised prominences. To know whether you are susceptible to this trick of the eye, consider this picture. If the channel networks in this image appear to you to be raised relief, your eye is deceiving you, and you are not alone. A large percentage of viewers experience this illusion.

As for the dendritic ridges on Mars, we have found the following steps to be a reliable means of getting the brain to cooperate: 1) Look without distraction at the point denoted by the highest arrow on the left. 2) Ask yourself what you will see if the arrow is pointing to the “summit” of a ridge running down the escarpment. 3) Remind yourself that the light is coming from the right, illuminating one side of the ridge complex. Even if it takes your brain a minute or two to cooperate, the experiences of others give us confidence that you will see the ridge complex as clearly as they have. You can then test out this procedure with the images presented in our two previous pictures of the day—here and here—a good exercise because both of these pictures involve vantage points that more easily suggest the wrong references.

Dendritic ridges will emerge as a crucial consideration in any analysis of an electric model. The best tests of a new model are those in which its interpretations are most easily distinguished from prior theoretical models. To the best of our knowledge, there is no meaningful interpretation of dendritic ridge formations in any “erosional” context. In fact, we can identify no known geologic process that would give a consistently dendritic pattern in any context.

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