Billy Adams: Searching for MH370? You're sure to start seeing things

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There's something in those spots - a satellite image of the Indian Ocean, provided by Tomnod.
There's something in those spots - a satellite image of the Indian Ocean, provided by Tomnod.

Is it a plane? The black line that curves up to the left of the over-sized white blotch could be the cockpit windows. The nose might be submerged.

Funny how the brain works. If you really want to see something, you often do - whether it's the Virgin Mary on a slice of toast, a man on the moon or, in my case, bits of a Boeing 777 bobbing on the Indian Ocean.

Scientists refer to it as apophenia or pareidolia when we see patterns and connections in seemingly random data. Apophenia is on the same spectrum as schizophrenia, and my wife was certainly questioning my sanity as I spent Saturday night scouring blurry satellite images of endless rough seas. If these photos are anything to go by, you have virtually no chance of seeing a broken-up airliner.

MH370 was 64m nose to tail. Had it miraculously remained intact and continued to float, it would stretch 3cm across a computer screen. Of course, the reality is a search focused on finding much smaller pieces of debris, most of which are indistinguishable from the ubiquitous white streaks that show waves rolling across an otherwise dark mass.

At least, that is, to untrained eyes. So far, almost eight million of those have squinted at grainy images on Tomnod, the most popular of several crowdsourcing platforms that can now claim credit for organising the world's biggest-ever search party. Tomnod is owned by DigitalGlobe, which last week provided the image that prompted a rush of military aircraft and ships to a desolate area of ocean 2500km southwest of Perth.

The object was estimated to be 24m long, and some observers thought they could make out part of Malaysia Airlines' distinctive kite-like logo. When I joined the search it quickly became apparent that only similar-sized objects might stand out to the naked eye. But after an hour something stood out.

The size of the white area looked bigger than the other waves, possibly more than 10m long. There seemed to be a depth and consistency not evident elsewhere. Zooming in, I found myself trying to fit the indistinct shape with parts of a passenger aircraft. Sure enough, the brain engaged and I wondered if that curved black stripe was the cockpit windows.

Not that I'm alone in these irrational deductions. Thousands of people displaying the best intentions think they've found the plane on Tomnod. Even Courtney Love pointed out a possible wreck in the Andaman Sea near where the 777 was last detected on Malaysia's military radar. Tomnod's algorithm responds to the wisdom of the crowd by trying to eliminate its enthusiasm, and stupidity. Only potential objects and areas tagged by multiple people are flagged for follow-up and possible review by authorities.

So did I find MH370? Hardly. It was probably just a bigger wave or a trick of the light. If it was something, it's far more likely to have been a shipping container, part of a boat, or a whale.

It also turned out I was looking nowhere near the current search area. Tomnod users are given randomly chosen maps. Mine was thousands of kilometres north, close to an atoll in the Maldives where residents say they saw a low-flying jet on the morning the plane disappeared. Authorities have already ruled that one out.

- NZ Herald

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