Britain's crop circles: reaping by whirlwind? Scientists are finally offering down-to-earth explanations for a phenomenon that had been the province of mystics
London--AS THE ENGLISH SUMMER TURNS to autumn and the combine harvesters move out into the fields, it's the end of another research season for Terence Meaden. A former lecturer in physics at Oxford and Grenoble, Meaden has spent the past decade in a frustrating quest for a scientific explanation for Britain's mysterious crop circles. For Meaden, the season has added another 150 or so detailed records of the unexplained patterns in the fields: Some are near-perfect circles, some sets of concentric rings, others are yet more complex. A fex are plainly the work of hoaxers, or even of unscrupulous farmers anxious to make a few pounds by charging gullible tourists to look at them. But Meaden is certain that many are the work of a simple but as yet unexplained natural phenomenon.
"The circle problem is definitely a problem in physics and meteorology, needing help from mathematics," says Meaden. While few other scientists are willing to stake their reputations and swear that Meaden is right, this past year a small but growing band of researchers has been willing to ignore all the media hype that links crop circles to the appearance of flying saucers and take a serious look at Meaden's observations. As a result, the first tentative models providing wholly unmysterious explanations of circle formation are now appearing in print.
Even laboratory experiments are under way--a model of the English hills sits in a wind tunnel in Ohio and artificial ball lightning is being used in a Japanese laboratory to create simulated crop circles. Add another astonishing find--circles imprinted in the dust of subway tunnels beneath Tokyo--and you have an emerging field full of unexpected links between disciplines. Indeed, the field is already beginning to split into two camps: those who think an "atmospheric vortex" could produce the circles, and others who postulate that such a vortex must be electrified for it to make such precise patterns.
Aside from risking the ridicule of their peers, the daunting problem facing crop-circle researchers is that no one has ever captured the process of circle formation on film. Meaden tried hard this summer with Operation Blue Hill, in which a team of 40 observers (including 19 Japanese) mounted an around-the-clock surveillance of a likely spot for circle formation, armed with video, infrared cameras, radar, and a bank of automated weather instruments. One circle did appear nearby, but to the researchers' annoyance, mist obscured the view. But there was an up side: The circle formed in a field ringed with automatic alarms and so is unlikely to have been the work of hoaxers.
Unable to snag a circle in the act, researchers have had to settle for a basic data set of more than 1800 records of the size and shape of crop circles and the locations and weather in which they form. Most of the circles have been seen in England, but arguing against...