What’s the deal with “crop circles”?

Dear Cecil:

What's this I hear about "crop circles" being mysteriously flattened in the corn and wheat fields in the English countryside around Stonehenge? I heard that attempts have been made to duplicate these circles without success. What's the Straight Dope?

Cecil replies:

Oh, God, not crop circles. According to the New York Review of Books, nearly 1,000 of the flattened circles (and other more elaborate designs called pictograms) had been reported as of 1990, some up to 150 feet in diameter. The stalks aren’t broken, just bent over. Although a few circles were reported in the 60s and 70s, they’ve only become common since 1980. Numerous explanations have been offered: snared animals running in circles, helicopters flying upside down, giant mushrooms, and, just to show you even crackpots read the newspapers, a hole in the ozone layer that allows ultraviolet radiation to fry the alfalfa.

A physicist blames the circles on “small, stationary wind vortices”; others predictably chalk them up to an unknown intelligence. The Economist magazine a couple years ago gave a respectful writeup to a Japanese researcher who thinks the circles are caused by ball lightning, known in some quarters as plasma vortices.

Whatever may be said for these notions, at least some (and in my opinion, probably all) of the circles are hoaxes. The circles are almost invariably made under cover of darkness; the few claimed eyewitness accounts are highly suspect. The number of circles increases dramatically after each new round of publicity. The circles are almost always located astride tractor tracks, down which hoaxers can easily walk undetected. The designs have gotten increasingly (and absurdly) elaborate; one pictogram spelled out WEARENOTALONE. Sometimes the patterns are decked out with Ouija boards and crosses. The vast majority are located in a couple counties in southern England, presumably because the hoaxers don’t care to travel too far from home.

On one occasion the BBC, in the course of doing a report on the phenomenon, snuck a crew of wise guys into the middle of a field, making sure everybody walked in the tractor tracks so as not to leave footprints. The pranksters then formed a line, linked arms, and did a slo-mo shuffle somewhat reminiscent of a marching band on Valium. The result was pronounced a genuine crop circle by a leading “cereologist,” or crop circle investigator. Gotcha, said the BBC people, it’s fake! I knew that, said the cereologist. It was too perfect. Sure.

In 1991 two men named Bower and Chorley appeared on the scene claiming they’d spent the last 13 years making circles as a lark. They even demonstrated their technique on TV, using boards to flatten the crops. Crop circle buffs were thrown into momentary disarray. Some refused to believe Bower and Chorley; others, while conceding that hoaxes may account for as many as half the circles, continue to maintain the rest are real.

I doubt it. Crushing the corn in order to sucker the feebleminded clearly has gotten to be a popular sport among the young bloods of southern England. While the buffs may profess to be baffled by this so-called mystery, there’s no need for the rest of us to play the same game.

Proof that the aliens have landed!

Dear Cecil:

Aliens do create “crop circles.” Specifically, to give indications of their presence here, according to my reliable sources (several, mostly channeled independently). Despite massive official denials and cover-ups, this planet’s been crawling in ETs since we shook up this sector of the galaxy splitting atoms. Why “answer” questions to which you don’t know the answers?

The more letters I get like this, J., the more I start to think you’re right.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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