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Running in Circles

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A flash of light, a spinning ball of crackling air, a sound like a train crash, and then — nothing. Silence, and all that is left behind is a strange circle in the field. Crop circle formations have been in existence for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Their exact nature, cause, and message, however, are still shrouded in mystery. Numerous theories abound. Some view them as evidence of spacecraft landings, others see the formations as the result of bizarre meteorological activity, and others yet dismiss them as carefully orchestrated pranks.

Crop circles (or crop formations) are areas of fields where crops have been flattened to make a pattern, be it circular or more complex. Crop circles usually appear in fields of some sort of grain, such as wheat or corn, although some have appeared in mustard, soybean, and sugarbeet fields. Single circles have reached diameters of 100 feet. The crops that are affected are amazingly swirled, woven, and flattened…but not crushed or broken — they will continue to ripen until harvest. Formations range from simple single rings to more complex quintuplets and even a “Celtic Cross” of four circles linked by one large ring.

In 1989, a circle was reported with satellite rings featuring swirls in opposite directions and a tadpole form with a long, curling tail. The appearance of more complex formations is largely centralized in the “Wessex Corridor,” the British breadbasket near Stonehenge and Avebury. Since 1980, over 750 circles have been reported in Britain alone, and others have been found in the former Soviet Union, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.

Those who study the rings call themselves “cereologists,” after the Roman goddess Ceres, matron of agriculture. One such man is Dennis Stacy, who, while modest about his crop circle knowledge, has quite a bit of insight into their historical relevance. Stacy states that the sudden appearance of so many circles over such a short period of time (about fifteen years) could lead to speculations of a cycle of an undetermined number of years. The first recorded sighting of a crop formation in this cycle was 1976, by a farmer at Headbourne Worthy in Hampshire, England. “The average cycle of activity seems to be at least ten years in length,” says Stacy, however the time between cycles is yet unknown. The crop circles have seemed to gain complexity as more have been discovered. Stacy believes that this could mark an evolution of sorts inside the cyclical theory. Sunspots behave in a similar fashion.

Even if cereologists could figure out the cycle pattern of the crop circles, who can tell them how the formations are made? While no information has ever been captured on film, there are people who have seen crop formations as they occur. Most eyewitness accounts offer vivid descriptions of blowing winds, loud noises, and bright light, but no one can make much sense of why these events occur.

The earliest known record of an eyewitness account of crop circle formation is from a four-page pamphlet which circulated in August of 1678 in southern England. A Hertfordshire farmer was engaged in an argument with one of his mowers. He said that “he would rather the Devil himself should Mow his Oats” than his hired man. That night the farmer reported a strange light in his field and in the morning found a crop circle there. The publisher of the pamphlet said that “a mowing devil” had made the circle, “and plac’t every straw with that exactness that it would have taken up above an Age for any Man to perform what he did in one night.”

More recent eyewitness accounts have excluded devils but have retained reports of strange happenings as circles were being formed. Vivienne and Gary Tomlinson of Hambledon, Surrey, were going for an evening stroll on Thursday, May 17, 1990. As they walked a path alongside a wheat field near their home they noticed the two-foot high, dry wheat swaying gently in the breeze. Abruptly, the weather changed as the wind began to come from two directions at once. What was once the soft sound of the wind caressing the wheat changed to a high-pitched whine, hurting the Tomlinsons’s ears. The winds picked up, sucking the couple into a whirlwind-like area off the path. The swirling eddies were descending on them and the Tomlinsons noticed a thick mist in the winds. Straining against the forces of nature, Vivienne pulled herself and her husband out of the vortex. The wheat was being beaten down to the ground into a circle formation by the winds as they stood mere feet away. Then as suddenly as it had descended, the winds broke, raised, and jumped across the rest of the wheat field, creating more circles as they did.

Crop formations may trace their history back to prehistoric Britain, when the shamans of the early inhabitants of the Isles saw the circles as messages from the heavens — a view that some share today.

Certain veins of UFOlogists have seen a new glimpse of proof in the circles, claiming that extra-terrestrial intervention caused the patterns to be stamped in Britain’s fields. Especially enticing to the UFOlogists are the intricate patterns of connecting and intermingling circles and lines. However, a strong argument against UFO involvement is the lack of damage done to the crops. Most circles have swept, woven stalks, not broken stalks that come from human or mechanical involvement. And besides, says Paul Fuller, co-author of Crop Circles: A Mystery Solved?, “It is simply not permissible to attempt to account for anomalous phenomena by reference to other unexplained or controversial phenomena(e.g. ‘Ley Lines,’ the hole in the ozone layer, UFOs, etc.).” Despite the subject matter, circular reasoning is not allowed.

Dr. Terrence Meaden, a physicist from Britain and a member of the Tornado and Storm Research Organization (TORRO), has his own theory, based on a decade of crop circle investigations. He believes that the key to the crop circle mystery is meteorological, not extraterrestrial. However, Dr. Meaden's weather report borders more on the unique than the harsh. He explains that the cause behind the formation of the circles is something “better than fiction,” a theory of his own called the “plasma vortex phenomenon.”

“Those who like to fantasize that something from outer space is responsible can be excluded,” Dr. Meaden says bluntly. Meaden purports that a spinning, electrically charged ball of air makes contact with a field of crops and leaves a circular impression. Airflow between the grains accomplishes the swept and woven patterns. Purdue University professor of atmospheric sciences John Snow also holds this viewpoint. “My personal opinion is that some of the crop circles are possibly due to action by vortices — distant cousins to the dust devil or whirlwind.” Snow explains that vortices are actually quite common, and can sometimes be seen “around buildings on a windy day.”

Dr. Meaden’s plasma vortex phenomenon theory not only explains how the circles are made, but also why most of them form in a concentrated area of southeastern England. His answer is a geographical one as well as meteorological. The hills around the natural English wind tunnel known as “the Wessex Corridor” are low, isolated, and near the ocean. As a light breeze comes in off the water the hills act as gentle obstacles in the wind tunnel, throwing long, unstable eddies far downwind. A small number of these eddies may then turn into spinning vortices, and may be helped by stronger winds higher in the atmosphere.

Miami University professor Christopher Church has been using Dr. Meaden’s theory in experiments at the University. Church uses a scale model of the Hampshire hills set in a special wind tunnel and has formed the tentative conclusion that the wind from the ocean is not enough for the formation of crop circles to occur. A vertical force is needed to complement the horizontal breeze and begin the process. This force, Church theorizes, could be thermal energy from the Earth.

However, the wind in all of these scientists’s sails has been lessened by arguments pointing out the actual conditions present when most circles form: calm nights with no wind. And besides, how could anything as powerful as a plasma vortex have enough control to cut formations as precise as those seen in Meaden’s studies? “If we assume that crop circles are genuine,” says Kent University professor Roger Jennison, “I would not go along with any suggestion that they are created by air currents because there would be too much turbulence” for anything as finely crafted as the circles. Snow agrees. Crops may appear solid when viewed from a distance, he says, but “actually there is mostly open space in there. That makes a very interesting fluid mechanics problem that I don't think has been addressed well.”

Another connection dismissed early on is to “fairy rings.” Or circles of mushrooms found growing in forests and fields. While they suggestion seems preposterous at first glance, mushrooms and wheat being of two entirely separate scientific kingdoms, it does raise some interesting parallels. Could fairy rings be present in the fields of the crop circles, weakening the bases of the stalks and causing them to fall? So far no evidence has suggested this is so, and the speed at which most crop circles are formed (some witnesses have reported formation to take a few seconds), throws this theory out. Also of interest: when fairy rings were studied in the 18th century, scientists dispelled the myths of their folklore (traces of the midnight revels of “the little people”) by giving the rings a meteorological explanation. We now know that fairy rings are a natural, botanical occurrence that has nothing to do with the weather. Could Dr. Meaden and his adherents be throwing us off the track?

“Imitation implies the existence of an original,” says cereologist Manfred Cassirer. Some cereologists believe that the crop circles are all the work of pranksters. The more complex formations are known as “pictograms,” are they account for five to 10 percent of the circles reported since 1990. “For the record, I am persuaded that the complex formations…seen in 1989 and 1990 are probably hoaxes…taking attention away from the core phenomenon, which is rather smaller and less complex in its variety of patterns than most people assume,” tells cereologist Jenny Randles. In the summer of 1991 two hoaxers came forward with an incredible tale. David Chorley and Douglas Bower, both 60 years old and both retired landscape artists in Britain, told cereologists that they were the creators of hundreds of circles between 1978 and 1991. The two men showed reporters their tools — balls of string, long boards, and simple surveying devices — and how they used them to make crop formations ranging from simple circles to repeated, complex, insect-like patterns.

But if Chorley and Bower had only been in the hoaxing business since 1978, what is to account for the circles before that year? And besides, the two men had confined their trickery to a small area of Southern England. Therefore they could not be responsible for the hundreds of circles reported elsewhere in Britain and the world. Retired astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins read about Chorley and Bower and questioned the pair's story not only because of their meager territory but also because of their apparent mathematical genius. Hawkins is famous in the scientific community for his studies of Stonehenge and had been asked by colleagues to look into the crop circle enigma in 1990. In a letter to Chorley and Bower in September of 1991, Hawkins asked them how they managed to discover and incorporate a number of ingenious, previously-unknown geometric theorems into their artwork in the crops.

The crop circle enigma lives on. Some cereologists seem to have made up their minds as to how these mysterious formations come about. Others are just as confused now as when they started. The spirit behind the study was best summed up by Sally B. Donnelly when she wrote that “researchers and the locals may enjoy their novel oddity so much that another ring is more interesting than a conclusive answer.”

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