'Angel of 9/11': Steel visage tricks the eye — and touches the heart

NBC News - From the right angle, construction workers at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at New York's ground zero can make out a sad-looking face that's been dubbed the 'Angel of 9/11'...

NBC News – From the right angle, construction workers at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at New York’s ground zero can make out a sad-looking face that’s been dubbed the “Angel of 9/11,” seemingly emerging from the twisted steel of a girder that was hit by the first hijacked plane.

The facelike feature is the result of natural corrosion plus a trick of the eye — but that shouldn’t make the angel any less inspiring.

The angel’s dark eyes, nose and open mouth stem from a combination of factors, starting with the way the steel was twisted when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into it on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

After the attack, salts, oxides and moisture on the steel’s surface affected how the girder corroded, said P. Chris Pistorius, a materials scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who is co-director of the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research. Air circulation around the ruined steel played a role as well.

“Atmospheric corrosion is very sensitive to microclimates,” he told NBC News. “It’s actually difficult to get even corrosion of such a surface. It’s more likely to get a pattern than to get uniform corrosion.”

If layers of steel are lying on top of each other, as appears to have been the case with the 9/11 girder, moisture can “wick in different areas and leave all kinds of different patterns,” said Thomas Eagar, a professor of materials engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Pareidolia at work

The pattern of twisted, corroded steel looks like a face in large part because of a perceptual phenomenon known as pareidolia, a term derived from the Greek words for “mistaken image.” It’s the same phenomenon that’s behind the Face on Mars, New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich and the “cloud angel” that was spotted over Florida when Pope Francis was chosen.

Our brains are well-suited to finding patterns even in seemingly random patches of light and dark — and that’s how splotches of rust gave rise to the Angel of 9/11.

The perspective and lighting angles have to be just right, but some of the workers at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum have marveled over the sight. “You can see the face clear as day, as if it’s looking down over a sacred spot,” one visitor who toured the exhibit in advance of its public opening was quoted as saying in The Sun, a British tabloid.

“People often find meaning in tragedy,” a spokesperson for the memorial museum told NBC News. “For us, this piece of steel is historically important to include in the museum, as it helps to tell the story of 9/11.”

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