If you strain your eyes just enough, a photo of the nebula NGC 3324 sort of looks like the Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral.
Any Chilean will tell you the resemblance is uncanny. But Michael Joner, the BYU astronomer who snapped the photos last January, will tell you it looks like anyone with a nose.These differences in opinion haven't stopped Joner from becoming a Chilean national hero - completely by accident.
"People in Chile tell me that I'm real famous now," Joner said. "I guess I'll have to start wearing sunglasses in the airport from now on."
Joner's story begins last January in an observatory in the northern part of Chile. After an entire night of taking pictures of stars and distant galaxies for his personal academic studies in the Chilean town of Cerro Tololo, Joner decided to spend his final 10 minutes taking photos just for fun.
When he located a bright nebula near the Carina constellation near the southern cross, he snapped a quick photo. When he woke up later that afternoon a group of 12 excited Chileans were huddled around a table, amazed at the nebula's resemblance to Gabriela Mistral.
"They told me that it was the profile of Gabriela Mistral, and it does have her nose," Joner said. "But I'm sure there are millions of Chileans that you could line up with the nebula and have it fit."
Mistral is one of Chile's most celebrated personalities. Not only was she an accomplished poet and featured on the Chilean 5,000-peso bill, but she was awarded the Nobel Prize exactly 50 years to the day before Joner made his nebula discovery.
When it became known that the nebula was discovered exactly 50 years after Mistral won the award and only a few miles from her birthplace, the national media responded with a deluge of exposure. Photos, front-page stories and magazine articles with headlines ranging from "Nebula resembles Gabriela Mistral's face," to "Gabriela Mistral has appeared to us," popped up throughout the country.
Soon, Joner was interviewed by newspapers and television stations from all over South America and Spain. The media attention left him bewildered, to say the least.
"I still don't think it ever resembled (Mistral). What I did is a real common thing, it has no scientific value," Joner said. "It was a much bigger deal than I ever thought it would be."