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No. 78: Nov-Dec 1991

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Crop circles: hoaxes or natural phenomena?

The question posed by the above title was answered presumptuously and onesidedly by Time (September 23) and more objectively by Science (August 30). While Time implies that all crop circles are hoaxes, the Science article states that the "really bizarre" circles are hoaxes and that the simpler circles may have acceptable meteorological explanations. Unfortunately, the ridiculing tone of the Time article will probably set back the budding scientific interest in crop circles reported in Science. The real losers, as we shall see below, are those crop-circle experts who assert that they can always detect hoaxes.

Essence of the Time article. Two cropcircle hoaxers have confessed. D. Chorley and D. Bower have admitted that they have made as many as 25-30 fake crop circles per year, since 1978, including some of the bizarre ones. All they needed was a 4-foot wooden plank, a ball of string, and a baseball cap with a wire mounted on it for sighting purposes. It was all too easy! And, they assure us, other hoaxers were active in fields at night, too. This is indeed damaging evidence to crop-circle enthusiasts. Time concluded that the admissions of Chorley and Bower have "brought to an end one of the most popular mysteries Britain -- and the world -- has witnessed in years." (Constable, Anne; "It Happens in the Best of Circles," Time, 138:59, September 23, 1991.)

Essence of the Science article. The Science piece was written before the Time expose, but it presents several points supporting the existence of a genuine natural phenomenon beneath all the obvious hoaxing.

T. Meaden, an English scientist, has personally investigated over 1000 crop circles. He remarks that, before all the media hype, all the corn circles were simple in design -- including plain circles, ringed circles, and circles with small satellite circles nearby. In 1991, Meaden organized Operation Blue Hill, during which 40 researchers watched British crop fields. Significantly, one circle formed in a field they had ringed with automatic alarms, making a hoax very unlikely.

All in all, some 1800 crop circles have been recorded, many in other countries, including Japanese rice fields. One doubts that hoaxers could have been this ubiquitous.

Further, Y. Ohtsuki, a Japanese scientist, has been able to reproduce some of the characteristic corn-circle patterns by dropping plasma fireballs into a plate dusted with aluminum powder. Even double rings can be created around central circles in this way. So, the simple crop circles could well have reasonable explanations.

The gist of the Science article is that interesting science might be done with the crop-circle phenomenon. But will it after the Time broadside? C. Church, professor of aeronautics at Miami University in Ohio, says, "Everyone should be open minded, but I wouldn't want to get a reputation among fellow scientists as working on weird and off-beat things." (Anderson, Alun; "Britain's Crop Circles: Reaping by Whirlwind?" Science, 253:961, 1991.)

From Science Frontiers #78, NOV-DEC 1991. 1991-2000 William R. Corliss