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Volume 89 Issue 34 | p. 64 | Newscripts
Issue Date: August 22, 2011

High-Tech Crop Circles, Rutherford’s Atomic Anniversary

Department: Newscripts
Keywords: crop circles, magnetrons, Ernest Rutherford
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Agricultural art: A crop circle made in June in a barley field in Wiltshire, England.
Credit: Newscom
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Agricultural art: A crop circle made in June in a barley field in Wiltshire, England.
Credit: Newscom
[+]Enlarge
Ernest Rutherford: Not a stamp collector.
Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Hepburn
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Ernest Rutherford: Not a stamp collector.
Credit: Courtesy of Jeffrey Hepburn

I knew I was in for a curious conversation when a recent interview was coming to a close and University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor asked me, “Do you accept the premise that crop circles are not alien imprints, but some form of public art made by people?”

I picked up my pen again, swallowed a sip of tea, and said, “Okay.”

Taylor went on to tell me about a fascinating article he was writing for the Aug. 4 issue of Physics World about the annals of crop-circle science. In the story, Taylor explores how serious scientists have come up with wonderfully sci-fi-sounding explanations—such as the plasma vortex theory—for the curious imprints that appear overnight in farmlands across the world. Since the 1600s, some 10,000 crop circles have been created, and these days, the appearance rate hovers at about one per summer night worldwide.

The origin of crop circles has always been hotly debated by a potpourri of conspiracy theorists, but scientists have also tried to understand how the complex patterns appear on farmland. Initially, nobody could prove whether the imprints were the consequence of some sort of natural event or whether they were intelligently contrived. But as crop-circle designs became increasingly complicated, morphing into fractal patterns such as the Triple Julia, folks began to agree that crop circles are made by intelligent beings. Humans, aliens, wallabies, and even the devil have made the list in Internet chat rooms. Having ruled out the latter three, Taylor has been accused of being part of an international cover-up operation orchestrated by U.S., British, and German spy agencies.

But as Taylor points out, it’s become clear that coordinated teams of artists work together to produce crop circles—in fact, the BBC was able to document the work of a group called the Circlemakers in 1998. The way many people traditionally make circles is by using so-called stompers, which are “wooden planks attached to two handheld ropes,” and “string and garden rollers, plus bar stools to allow artists to vault over undisturbed crops,” Taylor says. “Despite their primitive appearance, stompers are a surprisingly efficient tool for flattening crops” but not breaking them, he adds.

As designs become increasingly more complicated, Taylor argues that artists are likely opting for a more high-tech method of making crop circles. And his theory is that they are using microwaves from magnetrons.

Here’s the logic: Exposing plants to microwave radiation causes their knobbly joints to expand, causing the plants to fall over without breaking (an important part of the crop-circle maker’s code of conduct). “Today’s magnetrons are small and light, and some require only 12-V-battery power supplies” to produce microwaves that could quickly knock over great circular swaths of plant matter, Taylor tells Newscripts. “If these artists are not using microwaves, then they should be.”

Speaking of physicists, on Aug. 8, scientists from 35 countries convened in Manchester, England, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus. Rutherford did win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but I worry that he would roll over in his grave if I called him a chemist, given his purported declaration (often repeated in the halls of physics departments) that “in science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting.”

When I was a physics undergraduate, my school’s physics club president came up with a moneymaking scheme to sell coffee mugs emblazoned with that quote and a head shot of Rutherford. His plan backfired, though, when he was forced to order more mugs than there were people in the physics department. I can still remember the looks of passersby when he tried to hawk the excess mugs to chemists. Happy anniversary, Rutherford!

 
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