SCIENCE

Mysterious circles

Flattened crops baffle British scientists

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 13 1990
SCIENCE

Mysterious circles

Flattened crops baffle British scientists

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 13 1990

Mysterious circles

SCIENCE

Flattened crops baffle British scientists

High atop a chalk bluff overlooking some of the most beautiful farmland in southern England, video cameras panned over fields of wheat and corn ripening under the summer sun. Strategically placed, concealed microphones lay ready to pick up the sounds of intruders. And brighteyed volunteers huddled in tents, eagerly waiting for their equipment to detect anything out of the ordinary. Last week, Operation Blackbird, near the village of Bratton in the heart of rural Wiltshire, was the most sophisticated attempt so far to solve a puzzle that has perplexed thousands of Britons and attracted attention around the world: the mysterious and sudden appearance of perfectly circular patches of flattened vegetation in farmers’ fields.

The upsurge of interest in the strange circles may be little more than a phenomenon of the summer silly season. But in Britain, where explanations of the cause of the circles

vary from complex whirlwinds to what some observers call an “unknown intelligence,” they have captured the popular imagination. Thousands of people have travelled to see the largest circles, some of which have been accompanied this year by elaborate patterns of lines and rectangles. Circle experts met at Oxford University in June to discuss their findings.

Rival associations of dedicated crop-circle researchers have sprung up—each fiercely defending a single explanation of what is behind the patterns. Said Archie E. Roy, a professor of astronomy at Scotland’s Glasgow University who has been investigating crop circles for the past five years: “For some of these people, it has become something almost religious.”

Roy says that he does not favor any particular explanation. As president of Britain’s Centre for Crop Circle Studies, which collates evidence collected by researchers, he says that he is sure of just one thing: that, with rare

exceptions, the circles are not simply hoaxes perpetrated by elusive tricksters. Said Roy: “The patterns are formed too perfectly, and the crops around them are not disturbed at all. The hoax theory is very doubtful.” There is certainly no shortage of theories about the circles, which have been reported in England since the mid-17 th century and which have also been discovered in other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Italy. Last summer, there were unconfirmed reports of circles being found in farmers’ fields in Manitoba.

Early English farmers attributed the circles to mythical “mowing devils” who scythed patterns in their fields. More recently, researchers have blamed them on fungi growing under the soil, hovering helicopters or even masses of hedgehogs, which sometimes move in frenzied circles during their mating season.

Others have even more ambitious explanations. The two men behind Operation Blackbird, a scientific investigation that is jointly sponsored at a cost of about $200,000 by BBC television and a Japanese TV network, maintain that only the action of what they call an “unknown intelligence” can explain the sudden growth in the numbers of circles and the complex new patterns that have appeared this summer. Patrie Delgado and Colin Andrews, who have both been researching circles for more than seven years, note that the number of circles verified in southern England has

increased to about 400 so far this year from fewer than 100 in the whole of 1987. And no theory, Delgado said last week, can explain the appearance of lines and rectangles around this year’s circles. “It’s beyond the realm of orthodox physics,” he said.

Instead, Delgado, a retired engineer who now investigates crop circles full time, maintains that the patterns are evidence of “an inexplicable energy manipulated by an intelligence that we don’t yet understand.” Their otherworldly theories have led critics to ridicule the two men. Delgado and Andrews were embarrassed on July 25 when they eagerly announced the overnight appearance of two circles in a field not far from their makeshift camp near Bratton. But when they conducted a more thorough examination, they found a Ouija board and two sticks forming a cross at the centre of the largest circle.

That was clear evidence that the circles had been created by pranksters. Still, they vowed to persevere with their three-week operation in hopes of recording the formation of a circle without human intervention. “We knew someone would have a go at us,” said Delgado. “But we’re dedicated people.”

Still, their discussion of mysterious “intelligences” annoys other, more down-toearth researchers. Most prominent among them is Terence Meaden, who once taught physics at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and has been investigating circles since 1980 with an organization called the Circles Effect Research Group. He met with Andrews and Delgado in 1987 but now he dismisses their theories as “absolutely stupid.” Instead, Meaden has put forward £ what some circle researchers regard as z the most likely explanation to the puzzle: the action of complex whirlwinds formed 5 by air sweeping around isolated escarpments or hills such as those found in Wiltshire.

Meaden says that the whirlwinds most often occur when breezes sweep around hills, forming what he calls “ring vortexes.” The vortexes, which may last for only a few seconds, descend onto the fields below, leaving a flattened, circular imprint with the straws neatly aligned in a spiral pattern. If the spinning air builds up an electrical charge, he notes, that could explain the lights and humming noise that some eyewitnesses have reported.

Meaden acknowledges that it is more difficult to explain this summer’s appearance of lines and boxes alongside the circles. However, he maintains that he has successfully explained why Wiltshire and neighboring Hampshire, with its undulating fields broken by hills and bluffs, appear to be the most prolific area for crop circles. But $ many circle enthusiasts do not appear to be eager to finally find the answer. As Glasgow University’s Roy noted, the best mystery is one that remains unsolved.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Bratton