In the collective modern imagination, crop circles are usually attributed to either aliens or a vast human conspiracy; possibly both. Some circle-watchers believe the designs are landing strips, maybe, or some kind of communiqué from outer space. Others argue they're the result of secret government tests, or perhaps secret codes meant to convey information to satellites and aerial drones.
For all the talk about who makes them, few people discuss how. Do people (or little green men) stomp around willy-nilly until the stalks fall down? Or is something decidedly more high-tech going on? We talked to a circlemaker and a materials physicist to get some answers.
It's a fair scientific question, according to Richard Taylor, a professor of physics and art at the University of Oregon. He believes circlemakers, as they're known, are using some advanced technology, from microwaves to GPS, to make their increasingly complicated designs.
"Although it's an odd topic, it actually is quite rigorous science — here's a mystery, here is a potential hypothesis that would solve this," he said. "It's a perfect example of seeing something out there in the real world and using science to explain it. It's just a little bit more exotic."
Roughly 100 circles appear in the UK every summer, according to circlemakers. Taylor has a few ideas about how they're done, which are outlined in an article in the research magazine Physics World. We talked to Taylor about his research and about his new ideas. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Click here to see a gallery of fractal-shaped crop circles.
Just to be sure, PopSci asked a UK-based circlemaker to share his techniques. He won't give everything away, but he says microwaves are not involved. (Read more from him at the bottom.)
Richard Taylor on Crop Circles
PopSci: What piqued your interest in crop circles?
Richard Taylor: My research background is with human vision, and how we can develop artificial retinas. As part of those studies, we try to understand how people view natural patterns, so we try and explore how people view artworks.
I grew up in England in the 1980s, when these crop circles were starting to get a lot more intricate in their design. Even at that stage, I began to realize the myth, which was that a few people were stumbling home and sort of fooling around in a field, that was clearly no longer an appropriate description of what was going on. Some of these patterns were incredibly intricate, with thousands of component parts.
The thing that really triggered it for me was that nobody, from the art world or the science world, was exploring how these people were able to produce these intricate patterns overnight. The old myth, that people were stomping on crops, was getting increasingly ridiculous, from my point of view. It seemed to be a great art-science crossover question, of what is going on?
PS: Why should people care about how these are made? Other than to prove or disprove aliens, of course.
RT: These crops, after they are turned into artwork, are harvested. So whatever is going on with those crops, they are getting in to our food supply. So people ought to know about it if there is some interesting technology involved.
Some people think it is aliens, you've got conspiracy theories about the goverment using satellites, and the third is you have human hoaxes. I thought, well let's take the evidence that people are using to say it's aliens or a government conspiracy. Why do they say that? They cite publications from the 1990s, where biophysicists went in and did research on the crops that appeared in the patterns. And they found evidence for microwave radiation.
The UFOlogists said those microwaves must be coming from alien spaceships, and the conspiracy theorists said, the CIA is beaming down these microwaves from their satellites. And I said, hey, there's another explanation here — maybe the artists are using microwaves.
PS: How would microwaves flatten crops?
RT: A typical crop has these sort of joints in the stalks. If you expose those to the microwaves, the stalks expand. It's called superheating. It's a bit like what goes on in your microwave oven — as the stalk heats up, they expand. The stalks fall over in a horizontal position. When you switch it off, switch off the microwave, the stalks stay in that position. It would make more sense to radiate with microwaves than to go physically stomping these crops. And one interesting phenomenon is the stalks are never broken, they're just bent.
It's all a consequence of the development of modern technology. It's only fairly recently that we've been able to have portable magnetrons that can run off a 12-volt battery. Before, you would have to take a generator with you to a crop field.
I'm not saying this is actually what is going on; my article is one explanation. This seems to fit all the facts, and you don't need aliens. Note: See below for a response from a circlemaker.
PS: OK, so say you have a spare field and a magnetron — how would you make a crop circle?
RT: I would go on a computer, go into a design program, and design the pattern prior. Then I would convert those measurements on the screen into GPS coordinates, and then I would go out with my little GPS watch or whatever, and at each point, I would be able to stake out the pattern in the field. If you are using straight lines between points, I would use a laser to figure out a straight line. That's how I would design it.
Then the physical imprinting ... one possibility is to use microwaves to superheat the stalks and cause them to fall down. Before they cool down and anchor into place, that's when you would sculpt your pattern — when they are still flexible, when you could weave the patterns. I'm not saying that's what they are doing, but I am saying that's perhaps what they should be doing.
PS: How many people would it take?
RT: The designs that are coming out now are so beautiful, I think it's not just one lone person working in a field. Even if the technology improves, it will still be a collaboration between a number of people.
PS: Are they getting bigger or more intricate? What's the crop circle trend?
RT: Some of the patterns are quite incredible. Some of them are 115 meters (377 feet) in diameter. If you were physically imprinting it, that's quite a lot of effort. It's not just going and stomping down a line, because within that 115 meters, there might be like 190 little circles of different sizes. And they're beautiful to look at as well.
So this sort of myth that it's a couple people hoaxing — that's certainly the way that it started, but that's not what is going on now.
PS: Has anyone accused you of ruining the mystery, like spoiling a magic trick? Isn't the secrecy of the technique part of the mystique?
RT: My briefest claim to fame is that I analyzed the artworks of Jackson Pollock. Some in the art crowd said 'maybe you shouldn't be using science to explain away art.' But what happened there was, by identifying the types of patterns in Pollock's work, it made his work more wonderful, because it emphasized his talent. We found fractals in his canvases. Previously, people had assumed these were random splatters of nonsense and had no meaning to them, but we identified these natural patterns in there. He had managed to distill the essence of nature on his canvas in a direct way. That was a great example of scientific knowledge added to the value of the artwork, and I'm hoping the same thing will happen here.
If we can identify the tools that these artists are using, it's not going to trivialize it. It's going to demonstrate how talented these artists are.
My motivation, is to say to the world, that these patterns are spectacular, and the people who are making them have talent, and that talent should be celebrated. I think the answers will add to the celebration of these amazing thing.
Response from a Crop Circle Artist
Note: We also talked to circlemaker John Lundberg, who told us the following via email:
In the field, we use very low tech equipment, surveyor's tapes for the measurements and a device called a 'stalk stomper' to flatten the crop. The stalk stomper is a 4-foot-long piece of wood with two holes drilled at each end. A piece of rope (approximately 8 feet long) is looped through the holes at each end and tied. To use the stalk stomper, you place your foot in the middle of the plank of wood and hold the rope in your hands like horse reins, then you step forward with the foot that is on the plank to flatten the crop.
I can assure you we've never superheated any crop stalks. If such things are allegedly found in crop circles, they are either present already and unrelated to the creation of the crop circle, or more likely it's just bad data based on bogus science.
The only technology I use is computer software to design the crop circle construction diagrams that we take into the field with us. I use the type of software an architect would use to design the floor-plan of a building.
I create a series of construction diagrams that lay out the construction sequence and all the geometry and measurements we need to create the crop circle. Most crop circle designs are symmetrical, as it enables you to efficiently create a very complex looking design with a relatively simple set of instructions that repeat. Asymmetrical designs are far more complex and time-consuming to create, which is why you don't really see many asymmetrical crop circles.
There is a down side to reasonable, plausible explanations and even solutions. We then stop looking for what was the orginal cause for the crop circles. For me, until we catch the space aliens, governement or hobbiest in the act of making a pefect crop circle and then interview them and prove how all the other crop circles are made, I am just not convinced yet.
@bubbagump: you do know that the second part WAS such an interview, right?
I'm thinking that crop "circle" is no longer an appropriate name.
why learn from your own mistakes, when you could learn from the mistakes of others?
really popsci, i normally don't complain about what you put on here but to give this wacko a forum to advances his crap is a bit much, crop circles have been thoroughly debunked, the reason they have gotten more complex and more numorous are because the humans creating them have increased in size and skill over time, why mostly in the UK? that's where they live
@BubbaGump...you fuc#ing idiotic troll, these crop circle artists have been filmed and interviewed while they were in the act of making crop circles, get a life
Your really going to do this Chuck? Please, go troll elsewhere.
The way the data falls, yes, some of them are made by humans, but others are mysterious. The earliest scientific report on crop circles was in the 1880s, around surrey in Great Britain. They appeared after violent storms in the area with no explanations at the time. More data needs to be collected before a conclusion can be made, because there does seem to be evidence of superheating in some of these formations. Such data will never be collected though, primarily because of outbursts from people like Chuck.
@drchuck1, dude, why are you so upset, lol. Yes, they have filmed farmers or locals making crop circles or and there are copy cat crop circle makers. I never made any type of claim how these things were made. It does give me great joy though that I did happen to upset you, how very cool, thanks.
@drchuck1, if one guy is caught making a crop circle stopping around with his feet and is filmed on TV, does this mean all crop circles in the whole world and the history of crop circles were made this way,NO. Like I indicated in my first comment, I like to catch the original crop circle maker, the same guy who is making them all over the world and then inverview him into how he did and and see him prove how he did it. Yes, it would be a fact finding mission and reality. Really, why are you so upset? Not enough fiber in your diet and your fool of poop, dude? Fiber does a body good, have a prune! ;)
not upset, so don't go crea#ing in your pants just yet, your still a fuc#ing lying troll, you stated "Yes, they have filmed farmers or locals making crop circles or and there are copy cat crop circle makers." but you stated earlier "For me, until we catch the space aliens, governement or hobbiest in the act of making a pefect crop circle and then interview them and prove how all the other crop circles are made, I am just not convinced. I never made any type of claim how these things were made." you say they have been filmed making crop circles, then say until they catch them in the act, then you say you never stated how they are made even thought you did state how they are made, do you actually pay attention to what you post, lier
@you are such a troll, no one is claiming one person did it, i for one am never reading another post from you and i hope many others do the same, i dispise lying and you are a lier
@Falconer13...are you really going to keep spreading such ignorance? people like you are the reason the USA is the conspiracy theory kingdom
correction, no one is claiming one guy did it all over the world, most of them are in the UK
Chuck who peed in your cheerios today? Why do you always feel obligated to put others down? I don't respect bullies.
I am curious to what inspired people to start making crop circles. Could they have been first done by aliens and if so, how?
@drchuck1, you've managed to insult every person who has posted comments on this article. Sadly, making yourself look like a bit of a loser.
I fully believe that with the electromagnetic currents surrounding us- it is totally possible that there are some real ones. Look at the intricate process of DNA. How could it possibly not be possible?
@drchuck1, Dear Chuck, honey, sweetie, you do realize you have a profile and all who desires can read you past comments right?! You have developed a distinct reputation in the style of how you play with others; the fact speak for themselves.
Still, really, why are you so angry. Yes this is PoPSci and yes it's about science, but this also a blog where any person from any place in life can comment. You act as if each person must submit their comments to you, prior to posting. People have opinions and comments for factual and any other reasons. People may even comment from a religious perspective too. It’s a blog, people are allowed to comment. Just so you know the point of science for the benefit of humans, it reflects backwards towards ourselves and yes we humans have a right to comment. We can comment, feel, be factual or non-factual; we are allowed to express ourselves. Here on this blog if you do not feel someone’s comment is relevant to you, then just move on and forget about it. Wow us with your own comments, less all you have is anger and the ability to attack others.
But really, thanks for the laughs, you are funny today! lol
You do realize I am laughing at you, right, lol snort....
@drchuck1 please debunk this, no one has thus far, and the people who witnessed this swear this is real.
Many crop circles are made by humans....those are copycats.
Crop circles have been around a lot longer than the 80's LMAO
This is not the whole image, but the whole image shows crop circles. And if you do a quick google search on cave paintings and crop circles, you will find images from all around the world, from India to Germany showing these designs.
Who ever is making these things is alien to our comprehension.
Radiological surveys have been done on crop circles and the land shows microwave activity.
As far as I have seen the only thing crop circles bring is "surprise", something was done unexpected and it was done in a way most people cannot figure out. At least the monolithic structures around the world tend to equal seasonal calendars and align with stars. Has any human yet learn anything useful from the crop circles (I am curious to know). I just have a gut instinct the crop circles are human made and well serve no purpose but to surprise us.
Here's a site, which really should have been mentioned in the article and investigated by its author, that categorizes all plant, soil, and atmospheric anomalies found in *some* of the circles (that the string-and-board explanation can't account for):
It's worth exploring, just check out the list of the highly regarded/qualified consultants who have provided their time and expertise on the samples:
Also, you can find all the latest circles at these two sites (not sure of any sample testing done to them - but they're stunning, nonetheless):
video - http://www.youtube.com/user/BZCAPMOOR#p/u (check out recent uploads)
pics - http://www.cropcircleconnector.com/2011/2011.html
This one might be my favorite:
Several years ago when I was still in elementary (or in middle school) I saw a program that debunked a lot of myths. One of them is crop circles.
Crop circles are made by medium to large groups of people with special devices that easily bend tall blades of grass and corn stalk in a uniform matter and shape them into circular designs with prudent planning and speed.
They work in the dead of the night and finish their work hours later before daybreak when people wake up. It's easy to pull off on countrysides because people in such sparsely populated areas take to bed quicker than people in metropolitan areas and they don't take to the fields until it's light enough to see the fields.
The fact that people are still trying to attribute crop circles to UFOs/Aliens is laughably ridiculous. I'm sure if anyone does the research they can find out how to make crop circle designs and how to make them quickly and efficiently enough to play pranks on whichever gullible soul they choose.
This isn't science. It's utterly dispicable
"Welcome to the Federation Starship SS Buttcrack!!"
congratulation to the artists. I particularly appreciate the Julia set and the jellyfish.
@BubbaGump Day in and day out Ive seen your comments all over PopSci always trolling/responding to other people who hardly post at all. Always lashing out at others who happen to call you out yet while preaching "Here on this blog if you do not feel someone’s comment is relevant to you, then just move on and forget about it."
I don't know if you do it because you just don't get enough attention while not on PopSci(which almost seems impossible for you to do) but it always seems as though you are more than desperate for it and ALWAYS coming to PopSci to fulfill your needs.
Just stop, sure you have the right to your opinion and ideas but that does not mean everyone wants to know about it.
Especially 10-15 times a day
@Escape, noted and deleted, thank you.
@Escape, You profile is just minutes old, you provide zero history of making any intelligent useful comments to this article or any other articles. Your first comment is of bashing! You illustrate to the world a first impression of yourself. My comments in the beginning of this article did not harm anyone. My last comment that these crop circles are just man made does not harm anyone. I guess you get a warm and cuddly feeling from drchuck1 comments since you post nothing about him. In fact odds are you are him, by you ommission to notice has bad behavior and you own profile is only minutes old.
@BubbaGump Alright Bubba I will give you the satisfaction of receiving attention. I am not chuck1 and I never had the need to post any comments until now because as a person that reads PopSci every once in a while your daily unnecessary comments just made me decide to act.
Do you see your effect? You are so annoying a random stranger decided to make a account just to tell you so. And yes of course as a professor in crop circles I wanted to add some useful comments so everyone can care and I can make a drastic change in the way we live(sarcasm).
The point is BubbaGump you might think of yourself as a highly intelligent being with amazing interesting thoughts people would love to know, when fact is you are a annoying attention seeking troll.
Also I will now try harder to ignore you since I can see giving you attention only makes it worse.
This is the conversation concerning the recent crop circle that appeared in China which can be seen on the earthfiles.com website.
J. Hello, this is John of Revelations here on Earth. How may I address you, please?
A. Yes, John, you may address me as Madam President.
J. We are astounded by your beautiful and huge crop circle
and/or land circle. Amazing - such straight lines and dug into the earth. Can you describe what you meant?
A. Yes, of course. We are delighted to make contact with you. It is a symbol of friendship to your people on Earth.
J. Thank you so very much. It has generated much interest
in China and around the world.
A. I see you are not in China.
J. No, I am on the other side of the Earth in the United States of America.
A. How did you get the picture?
J. Master Chow took photographs and posted them on the Internet which is our global communications system - not mental telepathy!
A. You are very capable in mental telepathy.
J. Yes, I have contacted 1200 civilizations in the galaxy including 550 Pleiadian Federation planets.
A. Oh, my, you are the best on your planet.
J. Thank you for your kind words, Madam President.
Is your science adviser and legal/financial officer there with you also?
A. Yes, they just came in.
J. Please say hello to them also.
A. I did.
J. Would they like to say something?
A. This is the Financial/Legal adviser - hello!
A. This is the Scientific adviser. Hello.
A. What is that?
J. Hi is hello, and Pi is 3.14159265 which sounds like Hi.
A. That is funny. So when I greet my committee I will say Pi.
J. Most amusing!
A. We are all laughing.
J. Me too. What did you do with the dirt that was removed from the circle?
A. Yes, we scooped it up and put it on our mothership!
J. Is that for your new garden in space?
A. That is funny. No, in a large storage bin.
J. Your crop circle is 2000 meters in diameter, so how large is your mothership if I may ask?
A. Our ship is 5 times that or 10000 meters long and 5000 meters wide and 1000 meters high.
J. So I take it that you don't actually need a planet!
A. Ha, ha. Yes, we are now on our planet.
J. We have some lovely purple and yellow flowers and vegetables in our garden that you can plant in that soil.
A. No, no. We have plenty of that.
J. Does your circle have a meaning we should know about? It seems Oriental for the Chinese.
A. Yes, it does. It means no matter what path you take in life, you always come full circle!
J. Oh, my! That is profoundly beautiful. May I disclose that here to others who will be inspired by your comment?
A. By all means.
J. I am overwhelmed.
A. This has been a great conversation and humorous too. We have to go.
J. All right. Thank you again. Over and out.
A. Over and out.
End of conversation.
In other conversations with the aliens, they say that the crop circles are made with gravitational waves.
Here is the conversation with the Commander of the spacecraft who made the recent vortex crop circle which can be seen on the earthfiles.com website.
J. Hello, this is John of Revelations here on Earth.
How may I address you?
C. Call me Commander of our spaceship.
J. Hello Commander. Thank you for making the crop circle illusion. It is marvelous.
C. Thank you. It took some time to calculate it.
J. Yes, indeed!
C. What did you discover?
J. The area of the circle divided by the area of the
ellipse is pi/2. Correct?
C. Yes, very good.
J. There appears to be more than this but I am still working on it.
C. Yes, there are more things to discover, but that
is a good start. Thanks for contacting us.
J. How far away in light years is your planet located from Earth?
C. 10,000 light years.
J. Is your planet similar to that of Earth?
C. Yes, 10 billion people, 50% water.
J. Are you a member of the Pleiadian Federation?
C. No, we have a group of planets as a cluster nearby, whereas the Federation has planets scattered around the galaxy.
J. Interesting. What made you decide to make the crop circle for us?
C. We wanted to establish contact with the people of Earth.
It is a gesture of goodwill.
J. Yes it is. Thank you for your act of kindness.
C. You are welcome.
J. Is there anything you want to say before I sign out?
C. We thank you for contacting us and wish you well.
Over and out.
J. Over and out.
End of conversation.
The fractal crop circle shown in this article was made by the reptilian Nagas who live co-dimensionally with us here on Earth.
@Escape...thank you for your comment, nice to see one resonable person post on here, i was obviously over the top with my comments, i don't feel bad about it because he deserves everything he gets, hope you will continue to post on here, cheers
I am sure drchuck1 & Escape eat from the safe breakfast bowl. Interesting side note here drchuck1 of all our conversations, I have never asked you to stop commenting or to go away. I never just out of the blue insulted you, but I respond to your comments only. But it seems you intent on controlling mine and other peoples comments. Why do you feel the need to control? Why do you insult others? I Enjoy your breakfast and have a great day! Comment all you wish and take care!