Feb 23 2009

Google Atlantis

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Atlantis is one of those enduring myths that is so tenacious it provokes speculation about what is it, exactly, that makes it so irresistible. It certainly appeals to the imagination – wondering what an ancient yet advanced civilization might have been like. It also appeals to the little explorer in each of us. At a time when we can go on the computer in our living room and see high quality satellite images of the entire planet it may seem like there is nothing left to explore – no edge of the map beyond which there be dragons. A little mystery can be fun – perhaps there are hidden archaeological and historical treasures to be found, at the bottom of the ocean or under Antarctica, whatever your preference.

Ironically, Bernie Bamford, an aeronautical engineer from Chester, UK, claims he found an aerial map of Atlantis on Google Earth. What he found was what appears to be a atlantis-googlegrid-pattern of lines covering an area about the size of Wales about 620 miles off the coast of West Africa (here are the Google coordinates: 31 15’15.53N 24 15’30.53W. Bamford is quoted as saying that the grid pattern “must be man-made.” Some reports characterize the pattern as “perfect.”

Certainly perfectly straight lines and right angles are not features common in nature and they do indeed suggest a human technological origin. If you look closely at the photo you will see that the lines are not perfect – but to be fair they are close enough that the non-natural argument still holds.

What, then, are the possibilities? The standard archeological approach to an aerial photo of a potential site is that on the ground (in this case on the sea floor) confirmation is always required. This is because it is very difficult to identify objects from far above. Such images are notoriously susceptible to optical illusions and pareidolia (see the Face on Mars). A legitimate archeologist will not publish that they found X until they have gone to the site and confirmed X.

Further, it is important not to jump to the sexy explanation based upon flimsy data. There is no reason to think that this grid of lines is Atlantis specifically. In fact there is no reason to think that it is anything until the nature of the data itself is examined. Before we begin speculating about what the grid pattern is we need to ask – is it real or is it an artifact of the data. For example, if one finds a blob of light on a picture, before speculating about what phenomenon is in the picture a photographic artifact must first be ruled out. Also conspiracy theorists are fond of zooming in on NASA photos of the surface of the moon or mars and then declaring that the straight lines they find must be artificial and not natural. However, they are just looking at pixelation artifact from digital photos.

In this case the apparent grid pattern does not survive this first test. Google has made an official statement that the grid pattern is indeed an artifact of data collection. They used sonar images from boats mapping the ocean floor – boats following a grid pattern. The lines represent the paths the boats travelled while mapping and is simply an artifact in the resulting composite image.

So it turns out the grid pattern was man-made – it was made by the path of sonar-mapping boats.

Of course, there are many other reasons why the Atlantis hypothesis was highly unlikely. It is clear, for example, that Plato (who first wrote about Atlantis) invented Atlantis as a literary device and was not claiming that it actually existed. Atlantis was the evil empire, enemy of Athens, the shining virtuous city. Atlantis fell into the ocean due to its moral decay. This was a philosophical discourse – not an archaeology lesson.

And of course efforts to find even the slightest evidence of Atlantis have completely failed. The surface of the earth is finite, and as Google Earth shows us, it has been extensively mapped and explored. The absence of evidence for Atlantis (a highly dubious notion to begin with) at this point is more than sufficient to conclude (to the extent that science can draw any tentative conclusion) that it simply does not exist. I think it is also fair to say that it would be folly to invest further resources into looking for Atlantis.

The Google grid pattern, however, is likely to make its way permanently into Atlantis lore. Those who cling to belief in Atlantis as a real place are likely to be more compelled by their imaginations of what the grid pattern may represent than the logic and evidence that tells us it is nothing but artifact.

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