By Matt Ridley
This article originally appeard as "Crop Circle Confession: How to get the wheat down in the dead of night", Scientific American, August 2002, page 25. The author is a British evolutionary biologist and science populariser. The pictures and text in smaller print have been added.
A crop "circle" is a geometric pattern of flattened crops, usually wheat, that first appeared in England in 1978 and later in other countries. They arrived always at night, and during the next ten years they became more and more elaborate. To date many thousands have been reported, and they have appeared on every continent except Antarctica. Some people believe they are messages from alien spacecraft, others that they are caused by freak winds, ball lightning, plasma vortices, even military tests of a presumed microwave weapon. In fact all are probably man-made, even those that believers say are too complex to be man-made. The straight lines above are the access routes for farm tractors. Pictures from Wikipedia.
I made my first crop circle in 1991. My motive was to prove how easy they were to create, because I was convinced that all crop circles were man-made. It was the only explanation nobody seemed interested in testing. Late one August night, with one accomplice, I stepped into a field of nearly ripe wheat in northern England, anchored a rope into the ground with a spike and began walking in a circle with the rope held near the ground. It did not work very well: the rope rode up over the plants. But with a bit of help from our feet to hold down the rope, we soon had a respectable circle of flattened wheat.
Two days later there was an excited call to the authorities from the local farmer: I had fooled my first victim. I subsequently made two more crop circles using far superior techniques. A light garden roller, designed to be filled with water, proved helpful. Next, I hit on the "plank walking" technique that was used by the original circle makers, Doug Bower and the late Dave Chorley, who started it all in 1978. [After twenty years of silence they finally admitted to making 250 circles over many years.]
It's done by pushing down the crop with a plank suspended from two ropes. To render the depression circular is a simple matter of keeping an anchored rope taut. I soon found that I could make a sophisticated pattern with very neat edges in less than an hour. Getting into the field without leaving traces is a lot easier than is usually claimed. In dry weather, and if you step carefully, you can leave no footprints or tracks at all. There are other, even stealthier ways of getting into the crop. One group of circle makers uses two tall bar stools, jumping from one to another.
But to my astonishment, throughout the early 1990s the media continued to report that it was impossible that all crop circles could be man-made. They cited "cerealogists" -- those who study crop circles -- and never checked for themselves. There were said to be too many circles to be the work of a few hoaxers (but this assumed that each circle took many hours to make), or that circles appeared in well-watched crops (simply not true), or that circle creation was accompanied by unearthly noises (when these sounds were played back, even I recognized the nocturnal song of the grasshopper warbler).
The most ludicrous assertion was that "experts" could distinguish "genuine" circles from "hoaxed" ones. Even after one such expert, G Terence Meaden, asserted on camera that a circle was genuine when in fact its construction had been filmed by Britain's Channel Four, the programme let him off the hook by saying he might just have made a mistake this time. I soon met other crop-circle makers, such as Robin W Allen of the University of Southampton and Jim Schnabel, author of Round In Circles: Physicists, Poltergeists, Pranksters and the Secret History of the Cropwatchers (Penguin 1994), who also found it all too easy to fool the self-appointed experts but all too hard to dent the gullibility of reporters. When Bower and Chorley confessed, they were denounced on television as frauds. My own newspaper articles were dismissed as "government disinformation," and it was hinted that I was in the UK intelligence agency MI5, which was flattering (and false).
Unsurprisingly, there are numerous books that refuse to accept that men could have made what they claim to have made. One example is The Secret History of Crop Circles: The True, Untold Story of the World's Greatest Mystery! by Terry Wilson, Centre for Crop Circle Studies, 1998. Nevertheless in 2005 there were probably a handful of dedicated crop circle art groups operating in the UK, plus numerous lesser groups each producing one or two circles a year. One group www.circlemakers.org even does commercial work such as one that was 46 metres in diameter for the History Channel.
The whole episode taught me two important lessons. First, treat all experts with skepticism and look out for their vested interests -- many cerealogists made a pot of money from writing books and leading week-long tours of crop circles, some costing more than $2000 per person. Second, never underestimate the gullibility of the media. Even The Wall Street Journal published articles that failed to take the man-made explanation seriously. As for the identity of those who created the complicated mathematical and fractal patterns that appeared in the mid-1990s, I have no idea. But Occam's razor suggests they were more likely to be undergraduates than aliens.