crop circles

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I have repeatedly said in the past that I regard the skeptics’ position of refusing to consider anecdotes as evidence as a major logical and methodological fallacy. Scholars vastly more learned than me have taken the same position and argued for it in terms that I would never be able to match. The bottom line is that I, as a general attitude in life, do believe what people tell. And, when people tell weird, incredible stories, I do not automatically dismiss them as delusions, misperceptions, wishful thinking. On the contrary, I certainly consider “the plural of anecdotes as evidence” (skeptics cringe…).

Evidence for what, however? Evidence that something might be going on. Anecdotes in the so-called paranormal are, for me, a trigger for interest. A pointer for further research. In order to participate in the construction of my own picture of reality, anecdotes must be corroborated by investigations (in-depth observations, data recording and analysis by trained scientists) and, if possible, by laboratory experiments under controlled conditions. Then, when this corroboration happens, unbelievable stories remain unbelievable, but I am compelled to accept them as facts. And to build my picture of reality accordingly.

In this last article in the crop circles mini-series, we’ll look at the issue of corroboration, and draw some final conclusions.

Let’s take, for example, the case of balls of light and other inexplicable light phenomena. The anecdotal evidence seems pretty strong: there are reports of written, signed affidavits (although I haven’t seen one myself), and any crop circle documentary will have its fair share of interviews with eye witnesses for the phenomenon. I considered that enough to trigger my attention, so I set out to find any publicly available documental evidence and whether any investigation was carried out. The documental evidence I was able to find amounted to grainy pictures and shaky videos. Some of these were intriguing indeed (including the one in which a military helicopter appears to be chasing one of these lights), but nothing that would move me beyond a general curiosity. Investigations? Zero, zilch, nothing. This does not mean they were never carried out, it means that to me – the casual researcher – they are not readily available.

Let’s now compare this with the as yet unexplained phenomenon of the lights that appear every year in the Hessdalen valley in central Norway. For over 40 years now, strange lights, moving at incredible speed along the ground or high in the sky, have been photographed, videoed and tracked with radar. In about five minutes, I – the casual researcher – was able to find tons of excellent video material and hi-res pictures, and to learn that a permanent scientific research project is even based on the site. Before the five minutes passed, I was able to find a 45 page paper authored by three academics, including as many as 65 references and documenting in fine technical details many aspects of the phenomenon. That is exactly what I call investigation. That is what I would need to keep me engaged further with the crop circle saga.

Let me continue with the issue of plant anomalies in crop circles. These were summarised in the third article of this mini-series, and appear, at first sight, quite extraordinary. By looking at this part of the evidence – as shown, for instance in various documentaries – one is compelled to believe that something truly inexplicable is going on. So one goes on and looks for hard data: reports of investigations and, if possible, articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. And one finds them, as it were. The claims, however, are not so easy to accept, especially considering what I earlier described as the collective hysteria surrounding crop circles, so one investigates a little further.

And one finds – as recounted in the previous article – that all the investigations have been carried out by a single team of three researchers. I was not able to find any other paper or technical report apart from those produced by BLT Research. This, in itself, looks weird. We have such a massive phenomenon, allegedly accompanied by the most striking, macroscopic anatomical and physiological anomalies, and only three people have ever seriously looked into it? Furthermore, I also found that parts of the BLT research were likely flawed by errors in both the methodology and the interpretation of results.

In a way of comparison, let’s look at the psychic power of precognition. Since the dawn of civilization, people have reported occasionally being aware of events that will happen in the future. If you look at the anecdotal evidence from what we call spontaneous cases, you will find very strong reasons to investigate further and look at hard data. And when you do, you find, for instance, a meta-analysis for precognition experiments conducted between the years 1935–1987 by Honorton and Ferrari and published in 1989 in the Journal of Parapsychology. This included 309 studies, conducted by 62 experimenters, and showed relatively small but extraordinarily significant positive results: the probability of obtaining them by chance was one hundred thousand billion billion to one.

Three papers and three researchers for plant anomalies in crop circles. 309 experiments under controlled conditions and 62 researchers in one meta-analysis for precognition. Hello? Do you read me?

Finally (I could go on, but I think this would soon get boring), one of the potentially most fascinating aspects of the crop circles phenomenon is its alleged link with consciousness. The most attentive amongst my readers may remember that this was in fact what attracted me in the first place. If anybody wants to get an introduction to this particular subject, I suggest the various videos available on YouTube by British research Rob Buckle. In a nutshell, Buckle takes a very similar position to the one of Colin Andrews, namely that the unexplained part of the crop circles phenomenon a) is much, much smaller than it appears; and b) lies in a different area than anybody would expect. The two maintain that the real issue is not whodunit – they are convinced that most formations are indeed manmade. Rather, they say, whoever is behind these formations, a lot of weird, puzzling things happen around them. Buckle mentions anecdotal evidence for a range of phenomena witnessed and experienced directly by the circlemakers themselves whilst doing their things. And, it would appear that a number of anomalies show up equally in allegedly “original” circles and in manmade ones. One of the intriguing links with consciousness in particular is that many people – including the very Colin Andrews – have reportedly dreamt about a design, and then found it formed in crop at some location the next day, exactly as seen in their dream.

So, the causal researcher about crop circles that I am looks up any reference that would add substance to these very interesting stories. And, alas, all I can find are ufologist websites rehashing the very same stories. And the advertisement for a “six-part interactive video course” on “Crop Circles, Jung and the Reemergence of the Archetypal Feminine”.

In comparison, the scientific literature on dream telepathy is massive, colossal, and highly evidential. Between 1962 and 1978, a dream laboratory established at the Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, conducted 13 formal dream ESP studies, eleven investigating telepathy and two precognition, and three groups of pilot sessions. A meta-analysis of 450 Maimonides ESP trials found the overall success rate to be 63% (against an expected 50%) with odds against chance of 75 million to one. Since the Maimonides laboratory was closed, another 22 reports of formal dream ESP studies were published by 15 researchers, confirming that “judges could correctly identify target materials more often than would be expected by chance using dream mentation.”

At the end of a couple of months of trying to look below the surface of the crop circles phenomenon, I am therefore ready to draw my own conclusions. At first, I was utterly fascinated, attracted by the sheer beauty of the formations, and I openly said so. As a non-critical researcher, I later found tons of what appears as evidence that something very big and highly unexplainable is going on.

But I am not a non-critical researcher. I am a man of science, first and foremost, and of reason. I have taken my controversial positions on the mind-brain issue and, especially, on the survival of human personality of bodily death based on the in-depth knowledge and critical evaluation of masses of empirical and scientific evidence. So, I was compelled to look for such kind of evidence for crop circles. And I did not find it.

I do not maintain that all aspects of crop circles are explained. I do not maintain that all anecdotal evidence is false – the product of misperception and delusion. I do not even maintain that the BLT Research investigations about plant anomalies are necessarily solely the result of sloppy research. I maintain that, below a shimmering, mesmerizing surface, I could not find a fraction of what I need to really engage with the issue.

If anybody is aware of reports of serious investigations or scientific papers I have missed in my relatively superficial research, please point them out to me – I will be very happy to look at them.

Otherwise, as Ann Robinson would say: “Crop Circles – you are the weakest link. Good bye.”

Sheldrake crop circles

Eventually, after further searching and head scratching, at least some of the dust seems to have settled around the conundrum of crop circles, and I feel like I have reached some tentative conclusions. I am afraid that such conclusions will not necessarily please a part of my readership, but it is essential for me to remain true to the approach that I followed since the beginning of my involvement in psychical research. I keep repeating that I am convinced of the survival of bodily death of certain aspects of human personality to the best of my intellectual honesty. This means that I have looked at the evidence in considerable depth, I have examined alternative explanations when available, and I have drawn my conclusions. This rational approach, as I have said in the past, forces me to remain keenly on the lookout for any piece of evidence which is incompatible with my current belief, and open to review such belief accordingly. The same rational approach forced me not to take crop circles at face value, no matter how strong that value may appear.

The few tentative – and I stress the word tentative – conclusions I have reached about some aspects of the crop circles phenomenon detract from the hypothesis that they represent a massive, disturbingly visible manifestation of unexplainable forces at work. That was what I instinctively thought when I first became aware of the phenomenon, and my brief and superficial foray into this subject is teaching me a hard lesson concerning the power of emotional reasoning. Do I now think that the “mystery is solved” and all aspects are “under control”? No, I don’t. My research into this subject is way too shallow to be able to say that. But I now believe that any remaining mystery is “safely” confined at the fringes of the phenomenon.

The first general conclusion has to do with the possibility that the most complex formations are the work of people. This, as you will remember, seemed an absurdity to me. I thought it would be an insult to intelligence and common sense to think that few persons armed with simple means and with only a few available hours of darkness would come up with works of such stupendous complexity and precision. It appears that I was wrong. After considering a few perspectives pro and against the manmade hypothesis, I came across what I consider a pretty strong – I would say almost conclusive – piece of evidence from an apparently unlikely source, Dr Rupert Sheldrake. Most of my readers will know Dr Sheldrake as somebody who not only does not shy away from the unexplainable, but, rather, actively seeks it, makes it the subject of scientific examination, and carries the results of his controversial research with indomitable courage. Well, it so happens that in 1992, Dr Sheldrake set out to check whether or not a particularly complex and challenging design could be produced, offering £3,000 in prize money. In a highly recommended article, Dr Sheldrake writes:

“A panel of crop circle experts advised us on the design of a standard formation that all the teams were required to make. This contained supposedly difficult-to-hoax features like rings, and the instructions also specified the directions in which the crops were to be flattened. This design and general guidance notes for competitors were sent to all of the participants three weeks before the actual contest, so they had time to plan their strategy. They were also sent a copy of the marking scheme by which the judges would allocate points to the various formations. The location of the contest was kept secret, and the participating teams were informed of it only 48 hours in advance.”

After more technical details, the paper reports that:

“The night was cloudy, with intermittent rain and only occasional moonlight. The next morning, after the aerial photographs had been taken, the judges were the only people allowed to enter the field. By midday they had completed their judging process, taking into account both their observations on the ground and the aerial photographs. The winning team consisted of three young engineers from the Westland Helicopter Company. However, before being presented with a cheque for £3,000 by the Earl of Haddington, they had to make the formation again in broad daylight so that everyone could see how it was done.

The demonstration by the winning team [The picture at the top of this article] was fascinating. The young engineers employed very simple apparatus. For flattening the crop, they used a roller consisting of a piece of PVC piping with a rope through it, pushing it with their feet. In order to get into the crop without leaving footprints, they used two lightweight aluminium stepladders with a plank between them, acting as a bridge. For marking out a ring, they did not put a post in the centre, but rather used a telescopic device made out of plastic pipes of different diameter projecting from the top of an aluminium step ladder. A string was attached to the end of it in such a way that by holding the string and walking in a circle around this central position a perfect ring of flattened plants could be marked out without leaving any trace on the ground in the middle.”

According to Dr Sheldrake, “The experiment was conclusive. Humans could indeed make all the features of state-of-the-art crop formations at that time. Eleven of the twelve teams made more or less impressive formations that followed the set design.”

Do I therefore conclude that all crop circles are necessarily manmade? Certainly not, nor does Dr Sheldrake. But the fact that exacting design requirements can be met under tight experimental conditions is a very important piece of evidence, one that cannot be ignored when trying to make sense of the phenomenon.

Questions that remain to be addressed include: 1) the level of precision and technical detail of the most recent formations, which seems to me superior to the 1992 Sheldrake experiment; 2) the fact that the large number of artist/hoaxer teams that must be in operation to account for the many formations that appear yearly are never “caught”, even when Southern England teems with crop circles researchers and worshippers; and, especially, 3) the issue of timing. A lot of what’s at stake in the possible “mystery” of crop circles has to do with the timeframe in which they are produced. If one is to believe some of the things people have said concerning large formations appearing in a matter of minutes, then we have quite some explanation to do. As for myself, however, I have to admit that, given the hype and hysteria surrounding the phenomenon, I came to consider crop circles anecdotes a lot less evidential than in other areas of psychical research.

The second general conclusion has to do with the possible motivation behind the extraordinary work of the circle makers. It would appear that there is indeed an underground art movement focussing on making crop formations. Writing in the June 2010 issue of Nature, Richard Taylor, who – very interestingly – is professor of physics, psychology and art at the University of Oregon, says “As in all art movements, crop circle artists follow rules laid down by their founders. Respecting the Bowler-Chorley [the English sexagenarians responsible who first declared to be behind some of the early formations] tradition, many create their pictograms anonymously during short midsummer nights, leaving the scene free of human traces. Their challenge lies in creating escalating designs within these cultural constrains.”

This sounds fantastic and it looks like it may lay the issue to rest. Not quite, as far as I am concerned. To me, the issue of recognition remains unaddressed. With millions of people going crazy about crop circles (a very big scene, and a huge public!), how is it possible that we know so little about the artists? Even graffiti artists in the urban wastelands – whose work is seen by handful of people – make a statement. They sign. They say “It’s me who did it”. And, when they become known, they try to sell their work. In the case of the crop circles, we have an art form which requires almost superhuman skills and efforts and, by its own rules, has to remain anonymous. I find this really hard to swallow. Therefore, concerning motivational aspects, I note the “underground art movement” as a possible explanation but nothing more.

The third and last general conclusion is possibly the most important. However, again, it is not a black and white, yes or no kind of conclusion. I am sorry that I have to write at length, but this is an intricate issue, and I have to try to do justice to it.

We are looking at the anatomical and physiological features that allegedly set apart the plants found in “genuine” crop circles from those found in undisturbed fields, or in hoaxed circles. If you look in detail at what the researchers of the BLT team present about plant abnormalities on their webpage, this would leave very few doubts. To me, these abnormalities are either there or not there – they are quite macroscopic and should provide quite an easy, solid yardstick to decide whether something is anomalous or not. However, the already mentioned hype and hysteria surrounding the phenomenon forces me to be extra cautious, and not stop at a web page.

The only thing I can do, then, is to turn to papers published in scientific journals. And here we enter another seemingly impenetrable maze of claims, counterclaims, accusations, rebuttals and defences. You will remember that the BLT researchers published their findings in a well-known peer-reviewed journal, Physiologia Plantarum. Those papers, I understand, are taken by the proponents of the crop circles mystery as the conclusive proof that something unexplainable is going on. As customary in science, though, those papers have been challenged by other papers (at least one, as far as I can tell at the moment). Writing in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, three Italian researchers make what seems to me as a convincing case that the original Levengood research was not up to standard, pointing to serious methodological fallacies in the collection of samples and statistical interpretation of results. They also challenge Levengood’s hypothesis of the involvement of electromagnetic radiation in the production of the crop circles. They conclude by saying “The total evidence discussed in this critical review demonstrates nothing but a mere difference in the stem elongation between the flattened plants lying inside the circles and those standing outside it, as we should expect when whatever kind of mechanical force flattens the plants, rope and wood plank included.”

More controversy follows, as an exchange of private communications between the Italians and H. E. Haselhoff (who published a follow-up paper in 2001, confirming and expanding the findings of Levengood et al.) highlights further mistakes on the part of the BLT researchers, acknowledged by the same Haselhoff. What a shame, I reflect, what a crying shame!

This kind of quarrels are very common in science, and sloppy research is nothing new, whatever field of investigation you consider. In this particular case, we could go on forever dissecting the issue. The Italians, for instance, focus on one specific abnormality (node elongation). They admit that it exists, but they say it is compatible with the manmade hypothesis. Is this true? I have no mean to say, and, frankly, I have neither the time nor the will to find out. I find it interesting, however, that Prof Taylor writing in Nature says “Intriguingly, biophysicists who investigated 250 recent pictograms found that the knuckle-like joints of bent stalks were longer than those on untouched stalks from the same field. The observed elongation and swelling of these joints has been replicated using microwaves to superheat the stalks, causing them to fall over. Some patterns may have been sculpted using microwave generators, such as masers or magnetrons from microwave ovens.” Is he unaware of the Italians’ arguments? Does he know something we don’t? And, much more importantly, what about the other bunch of massive abnormalities claimed by the BLT? I don’t seem to be able to find anything published in peer-reviewed journals, either pro or against their existence and significance.

My conclusion on this issue is based on a comparison with areas of psychical research I am much more familiar with. The case, for instance, for anomalous cognition in remote viewing experiments rests upon ultra-solid science. In that case, equally virulent quarrels followed a much larger number of better-conducted experiments, and at the end the skeptics had to give in. The issue of plant abnormalities in crop circles is indeed intriguing, and I was not able to answer many of my questions. However, in comparison to remote viewing, the case for it in hard science terms is practically not existent.

Before leaving this frustrating subject, I will now have to spend some time understanding the many claims that there are aspects of consciousness involved in the crop circles phenomenon. Stay tuned.

crop24If I have to be honest, I almost regret ever having scratched the surface of the crop circles saga. I should keep studying and reflecting upon subjects that I know and am comfortable with, and which are core to my activity as author and practitioner. Instead, I find myself spending time trying – unsuccessfully, for the time being – to find my way in what I described earlier as a thick jungle. I feel that I am pulled in all directions, and even what I presented as “hard facts” can, when viewed under a certain light, become soft as chewing gum.

For instance, I discovered that at what appears as the most serious end of the crop circles researchers spectrum,  many maintain that the majority of the formations – including some of the most stunning ones – are indeed man made. For example, Colin Andrews, who has spent an inordinate amount of time field-studying the phenomenon, says that up to 80% of the formations are the work of people whom I can only describe as fantastically creative and skilled artists. According to him, even the formation you see in the picture at the top of this article is manmade. But, alas, my common sense feels insulted. How is that possible? Can my common sense be so much deceived? And, to me the explanations Andrews provides on his webpage are tantalising, but inconclusive.

Furthermore, I have watched one of the videos purporting to show how circlemakers work. In time lapse mode, you see grainy night time vision images of a few people moving around in a field and creating, in a matter of three hours, a simple but pretty convincing formation. Is that a hoax (the video, I mean)? I don’t think so. And, if it is not, then it means that I as an observer can really be deceived to a massive extent. That what appears to me as an absolutely impossible feat is perhaps possible. Or perhaps not…

But tons of questions remain, even before we consider, as we will do shortly, more apparently hard facts. It was said, for instance, that in 2013 the number of formations in southern England had dropped significantly because of increased controls on the part of the farmers. In 2014, 83 formations were recorded, which is 30% up from the average of the pre-2013 years… How is it possible, I keep asking myself, that so many extraordinarily talented artists exist, and we only know about a handful of nerdy pranksters? Anybody with a particular skill – in the arts, in sport, in any field of human activity – naturally seeks recognition, and many would try to convert that into financial gain. Nothing of the sort. What is going on here? I don’t understand. As I said from the beginning, nobody ordered crop circles!

Now, those apparently serious researchers who maintain that most formations are manmade are also adamant that many remain unexplainable. And they have rather precise criteria to decide which is which. For instance, they look for the very visible markings left by the wooden plank used to stomp the stalks, and at the easily spotted grooves left by the concentric stomping activity. Or they look at the way the flattened plants are weaved together – the difference between the manmade and the allegedly “original” ones is quite remarkable. They look for signs of human activity, typically indicated by footprints left in the mud. But, especially, they look at the way the plants have been flattened (which is dramatically different), and at some features which are said to be unique to the plants in the “original” circles, and as yet unexplainable.

And here, at last, I found something that brings me back into my familiar territory: scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals. This being a long story, here is how investigative journalist Leslie Kean captures it.

“In the early 1990s, biophysicist William C. Levengood, of the Pinelandia Biophysical Laboratory, in Michigan, examined plants and soils from 250 crop formations, randomly selected from seven countries. Samples and controls were provided by the Massachusetts-based BLT Research Team, directed by Nancy Talbott.

Levengood, who has published over 50 papers in scientific journals, documented numerous changes in the plants from the formations. Most dramatic were grossly elongated plant nodes (the “knuckles” along the stem) and “expulsion cavities” – holes literally blown open at the nodes – caused by the heating of internal moisture from exposure to intense bursts of radiation. The steam inside the stems escaped by either stretching the nodes or, in less elastic tissue, exploding out like a potato bursting open in a microwave oven.

Seeds taken from the plants and germinated in the lab showed significant alterations in growth, as compared with controls. Effects varied from an inability to develop seeds to a massive increase in growth rate – depending on the species, the age of the plants when the circle was created and the intensity of the energy system involved.

These anomalies were also found in tufts of standing plants inside crop circles – clearly not a result of mechanical flattening – and in patches of randomly downed crops found near the geometric designs. These facts suggested some kind of natural, but unknown, force at work.

Published in Physiologia Plantarum (1994), the international journal of the European Societies of Plant Physiology, Levengood’s data showed that “plants from crop circles display anatomical alterations which cannot be explained by assuming the formations are hoaxes.” He defined a “genuine” formation as one “produced by external energy forces independent of human influence.”

A strange brown “glaze” covering plants within a British formation was the subject of Levengood and John A. Burke’s 1995 paper in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. The material was a pure iron that had been embedded in the plants while the iron was still molten. Tiny iron spheres were also found in the soil.

In 1999, British investigator Ronald Ashby examined the glaze through optical and scanning electron microscopes. He determined that intense heat had been involved – iron melts at about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit – administered in millisecond bursts. “After exhaustive inquiry, there is no mundane explanation for the glaze” he concluded.”

Readers interested in the original scientific papers please refer to http://www.bltresearch.com/published.php

These look like very hard facts to me, and leave me further confused. A reader of this blog, who writes in Italian and identifies himself as Eddy, maintains that there is no mystery and there are no questions. He maintains that agronomy has provided all the answers in “very serious” and “well documented” publications. Unfortunately, in his early comments he refrained from providing any reference, saying that I should do the searching myself.

I would be most interested in looking at articles in peer-reviewed journals challenging Levengood and Burke’s findings, and/or providing explanations for the anomalies found. This is a most sincere request. It seems to me so difficult, in this field, to find credible sources, either pro or against the mystery hypothesis. Please, help me – and all of us – finding our way through this seemingly impenetrable maze.

I thought this was going to be the last article of the mini-series. Much to my unease, it is not. I feel that I have to dig a little further before I can return to more familiar and better charted territories. As ever, I look forward to inputs from my readers to help me along the way.

 

crop3

With this second post in the crop formations mini-series, I’ll try to provide the substance behind my unexpected interest in this matter. Once beauty had opened the door, so to speak, and aroused my curiosity, I went looking for some hard facts that would address the fundamental questions: Can these formations be manmade? Is there any way to address the puzzlement – I would almost say “rational discomfort” – that took hold of me since I started investigating this matter?

In my search, I did find quite a number of hard facts, and I’ll come to those in a moment. Before that, however, I would like to make some preliminary considerations.

First of all, alongside what seem to me as hard facts I also found a mass of what I would call “soft facts” – credible and less credible anecdotal evidence about a range of inexplicable things happening inside and around crop formations. There are all sorts of reports about electronic and mechanical equipment malfunctioning, compasses going haywire, loud buzzing noises, bangs. There are stories about some people feeling weak or sick, and others feeling energised and euphoric. Some say to have been healed inside the circles. And, as you would expect, there are the omnipresent lights (balls of light and, very frequently, “tubes” of light moving around or “shafts” coming down from the sky) and fully-fledged UFOs.

If I am puzzled and confused about the whole crop circle story, I am even more so about this kind of “soft facts”. On the one hand, they look to me exactly as the kind of things people would imagine, make up or exaggerate. On the other, some of the reports come from disconcertingly serious sources (BBC crews, the military, the police…), and discounting them as mere fabrications seems to me quite futile. So, since I didn’t know what to do with this kind of anecdotal evidence, I decided to deliberately ignore it, en masse. As we shall see shortly, hard facts provide us enough headaches…

Secondly, very soon into investigating the crop circles subject, one is bound to encounter allegations of deception, misinformation and conspiracy theories. That in itself would normally be enough of a turnoff to have me abandon any further research. However, here too I am forced to admit that some of the evidence concerning  high-profile, highly mediatized hoaxes and, especially, the “two men and a wooden plank” media frenzy is very difficult to explain away simply as New Age paranoia. Therefore, here too I decided to simply ignore it, and focus on the hard facts.

Thirdly, and lastly, I want to make it clear that I don’t have a strong, definite position myself even on what I consider as hard facts. I have studied psychical research for over a decade now, and, based on what I learned, I am pretty sure about a few things. In the case of crop circles, I have – rather superficially – studied the phenomenon for a couple of months, and I am not sure about anything. Therefore, my readers are strongly encouraged to do their own research, and challenge even what I consider as the pretty strong, hard facts which we will now begin to briefly examine.

Fact number one: crop circles did not just start appearing in the late 1970s, as required by the manmade/hoax explanation. In 1686, British scientist Robert Plot reported on “fairy rings” in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire and said they could be caused by airflows from the sky. Whilst this is suspected by the skeptics to be a “pseudohistoric claim”, there is no doubting the 1880 letter to the editor of Nature by amateur scientist John Rand Capron describes how a recent storm had created several circles of flattened crops in a field in Surrey. Then, in the 1960s (some 20 years before crop circles became fashionable) there were many reports of UFO sightings and circular formations in Australia and Canada. For example, on 8 August 1967, three circles were found in a field in Duhamel, Alberta, Canada, and the Department of National Defence sent two investigators, who concluded that it was artificially made but couldn’t make definite conclusions on who made them or how.  In Tully, Australia, in 1966 the local police officer, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the University of Queensland concluded that the formation was “most probably” caused by natural causes, like a down draught, a willy-willy (dust devil), or a waterspout. In summary, hard fact one is that over 200 cases of crop circles have been reported before 1970.

Fact number two is that this phenomenon is not limited to a particular area of the southern United Kingdom. Although it is true that the majority of these formations appear in Wilthsire, crop circles have been reported in other parts of the UK and, crucially, in as many as 29 other countries around the world. The worldwide nature of the phenomenon would require a large number of teams of hoaxers operating independently from each other. These teams would also need to be able to deploy almost incredible efforts (more about that in a moment) and still maintain watertight confidentiality about their operations, given that only literally a handful of hoaxers have come forward to claim responsibility. Tell me, now: you put together and train a large, highly organised team who is capable of solving apparently impossible technical problems and produce a gigantic formation of untold beauty in a matter of a few hours, in complete darkness, and you keep that to yourself? You don’t make your well-deserved claim to fame? How credible is that?

Fact number three is the numbers. The numbers, in themselves, are astonishing. I thought it was a matter of a few dozen. I discovered that it’s a matter of 200-250, per year! To date, more than 10,000 crop formations have been catalogued around the world. How many hoaxers would you need to do that? A legion? An army? Moving about in the dark, constantly undetected (except for the few organised hoaxes…), without ever leaving traces? Let’s just make the one example. The image at the top of this article is the famous Milk Hill formation, appeared on August 13, 2001. It is one of the most awesome (and most photographed) formations to date. Its apparent simplicity (it’s just circles, of different sizes) hides an extraordinary technical feat: the 409 circles are perfectly (and when I say perfectly, I mean it) aligned on a spiral pattern. Apart from the superhuman geometric precision (more on that in a moment), if this was made by hoaxers they would have had to make one circle every 30 seconds during the night time hours in order to create this design! Legions of hoaxers, in 29 countries, achieving apparently impossible feats, and nobody talking? Nobody, apart from the sexagenarians Doug and Dave and the occasional prankster group like Team Satan, ever coming out and saying “We’ve done it – here’s how.”?

Fact number four is timing. This is perhaps one of the areas for which you, the reader, may want to investigate in greater depth. I have kept reading anecdote after anecdote pointing to these incredible things appearing not just overnight (in itself a phenomenal challenge for any hoaxer), but literally in a matter of one or two hours, and in some cases less than a minute! One telling example in this respect is the equally famous Julia Set (a huge 508’ spiral, somewhat similar to the Milk Hill formation, composed of 149 circles), which appeared in the early evening of July 7, 1996, in a field adjacent to (and in full view of) the Stonehenge megalithic structure, within a 45 minute period. Reports indicate that no one, including Stonehenge Security, the farmer who owns the field or motorists on the busy A303 motorway which passes the field saw or heard anything or anyone in the field during that time.

Fact number five is complexity and precision. At the beginning, there was only precision. An astounding precision in the design and execution of the formations, which consisted almost exclusively of circles. A precision so extreme to reflect a detail which in itself is absolutely unbelievable: the circles are not exactly circles. They are all ever so slightly distorted, because of the curvature of earth’s surface, as if they were an image projected from above. Later – and this is yet another unbelievable fact – complexity in the design begun appearing, and it has increased exponentially ever since. I am not, now, addressing the theory that the designs somehow “respond” to human thoughts and world events – I will touch upon it in the next and last article. I want to stay with the precision alone. Again, I have not researched this in depth and I encourage you to look into this, but it appears that, when carefully measured, the geometrical designs are accurate to within an eighth of an inch! This is true even if the formation is a thousand feet long (that’s the height of a hundred-story building.) For example, a hundred-foot circle will have an accurate radius to within the thickness of a single stalk of grain.

The hoaxed formations I have seen in pictures are nowhere close to such surgical precision. In fact, distortions in the shapes and relative positions of the features of the hoaxed formations can be seen with the naked eye. I am also amazed that the Righteous Scientists now invoke the use of GPS receivers and laser measurement – by the supposed hoaxers – to account for the precision of the formations. Aye – try to make a 100’ circle precise the thickness of a single stalk of grain with a laser tape measure, and tell me how long it’ll take you!

But then, again, perhaps I haven’t seen pictures of the “right” hoaxes – the ones that will prove that crop formations can be manmade…. Honestly. As to the complexity, I’ll leave that to you. Just look up “most complex crop circles” in the images repository on Google. Absolutely mind boggling.

In the next and last article we’ll examine a few possibly even “harder” facts that seem to entirely rule out the manmade/hoax hypothesis, and I will share some of my own, quite uneasy, reflections.

A PRESONAL NOTE: My new book Adventures in Psychical Research has just come out. Given that it is a collection of the 57 articles appeared on this very blog up to the end of 2014, I would greatly appreciate if my readers would consider leaving a short review on Amazon. It only takes five minutes, and it helps immensely to give the book visibility. Thank you in advance.

Contrary to what it may appear, this first mini-series of articles of my new blog does not mark a point of departure from the subject areas I have written about thus far. I am not intending to venture out into the weird and the unexplainable per se. My interest remains in psychical research, and in particular in applied psychical research – what I define as the practical utilization of the findings of research (in my case for the benefit specifically of the bereaved and the dying).

However, psychical research is essentially the study of human consciousness, which I now understand to be much broader than our normal waking consciousness. And, perhaps, at its very core psychical research is the study of consciousness as such, which in itself may be much, much larger than human consciousness alone.

I have recently come across a couple of subject areas which belong to “weird and unexplainable” domain, but seem to have little or nothing to do with consciousness. However, as I dug into them as a matter of simple curiosity, I begun suspecting that a link with consciousness may actually be there. In fact, consciousness and mind may be all there is about them. This – my readers will appreciate – is a very difficult and slippery terrain I am venturing onto. As I mostly think by writing, these articles will reflect my own thought process in almost real time as I consider these matters. I really, really look forward to the contributions from my readers in the comments section of this blog in order to help me along the way.

Now, coming to the title of this mini-series, this leads back to Isidor Isaac Rabi, a Polish-born American physicist and Noble laureate. In 1934, the discovery of the muon (the then latest arrival in a quickly growing family of subatomic particles) threw physicists into disconcert. The muon showed such surprising and unexplainable properties that Rabi famously quipped “Nobody ordered that!”

It’s like at the restaurant, when an expensive, elaborate, impossible-to-digest dish arrives on the table, and you realise nobody has actually ordered it. In my case, nobody ordered crop circles.

Until recently, I was little aware of the crop circles phenomenon and I was happy in my blessed ignorance. I thought of them as a relatively rare oddity – the product of some elaborate hoax. Anything I heard about them belonged to the most baloney fringes of the New Age movement, and that pushed me further into avoiding the subject altogether. Then I came across a relatively well made documentary and, amidst loads of New Age gibberish, a few things really captured my attention. I started digging for more information, and I felt like I was entering a thick rainforest, armed with a machete, looking for diamonds. With that I mean that I did find quite some extraordinary pieces of information, but in order to get to them I had to cut through a heavy, intricate, almost solid mass of… bullshit. Excuse my French.

Starting with the next article we will look in some detail at the shiniest of these “diamonds”. As customary, we will discuss empirical evidence (facts) and scientific research on a phenomenon which turned out to be even more baffling than what I have learnt in eleven years as a scholar of psychical research. Very baffling and, to me, in some subtle way even disturbing. I will explain all this at the end of the mini-series. Today, I want to talk about what first and almost irresistibly attracted me to this subject: beauty.

Let me explain. I was always fascinated by a well-known and long-established fact amongst theoretical physicists: as they go about formulating in mathematical terms the inner working of the cosmos, they are guided by… sheer beauty! In the inconceivably complex realm of advanced mathematics, it is how equations look that tells them whether or not they are on to something valuable. An impossible-to define – and yet very strong – sense of aesthetics guides them towards the simplest, most elegant, most beautiful formulation. Which, in the end, invariably turns out to be the correct one.

That is what got me in the first place with crop circles. Crop formations, we should rather say, as many of these are not circles at all. The elegance, the refinement, the extraordinary complexity and the mind-boggling precision of these formations (on scales of up to 600 feet and more!) speak to me of that kind of beauty. A kind of beauty which seem to intuitively communicate much deeper meanings, like in the case of the physics equations.

Now, let’s take a look at our beleaguered Wikipedia, and see what the guerrilla skeptics have entered on the page about crop circles.

“The scientific consensus on crop circles is that most or all are constructed by human beings as a prank. The most widely known method for a person or group to construct a crop formation is to tie one end of a rope to an anchor point and the other end to a board which is used to crush the plants. Sceptics of the paranormal point out that all characteristics of crop circles are fully compatible with them being made by hoaxers. […] Physicists have suggested that the most complex formations might be made with the help of GPS and lasers.”

Before we look at the empirical data and the real science, and we show once more how this seemingly balanced, reasonable, credible language is in reality a farce, a travesty, I want to ask you, the readers, to try the path of beauty.

Please invest six minutes of your time and watch this HD video (make sure that you watch it in full screen mode). And, please, do not even begin – for the moment – to wonder how “a person or a group” could “tie one end of a rope to an anchor point and the other to a board” and produce any of this. Don’t think people. Don’t think ET. Don’t think explanations (believe me, alas, there aren’t any…). Just let go. Just watch, and please tell me if you see the beauty.

http://vimeo.com/76549101

The second article of this mini-series is available here.