Tech UPTechnologyThe true story of the circles in the cereal...

The true story of the circles in the cereal fields

One afternoon in the summer of 1978, after a few pints at the Percy Hobbs pub near Winchester, retirees Doug Bower and Dave Chorley went out for a breath of fresh air along a bridle path in Longwood, near Cheesefoot Head. They were talking about UFOs and Bower, who had lived in Melbourne for 8 years, commented that someone had said that a UFO had left a circular mark in the grasses of a swamp. “How about we leave our mark there?” he added, pointing to a wheat field. Said and done. They went to Dave’s framing shop, took the iron bar he used to secure the gate, and returned to the wheat field. The Martians just landed.

Dave died at the end of the last century with the curious honor of having been one of the two inventors of the most famous pictorial phenomenon of the late 20th century: corn circles. But as happened with the founders of spiritualism, the Fox sisters, when the two retirees publicly confessed their misdeeds in 1991, many did not believe them. A couple of simple old men cannot have fooled thousands of people in this way and do things that are obviously beyond human capacity. No, the culprits had to be aliens, plasma vortices, or ball lightning. According to Doug, when he was at the hospital bedside where Dave was dying of cancer, he promised to continue defending his authorship. And as proof of it, in 1999 and for the cameras of the BBC he made his particular demonstration .

The effect of globalization

Cereal circles rose to fame in the summer of 1980, when the first circle made by the two retirees was observed. Two days later, a journalist from the Wiltshire Times visited the site and suggested that they were too perfect to have been made by rain or wind, or by the gale kicked up by the blades of helicopters, which often do their exercises on the flats of Salisbury. And he pointed out a possible explanation: they could be UFOs . The fuse was lit.

The interest of the media in this new and bizarre phenomenon caused the appearance of circles to multiply all over the cereal fields of Great Britain, especially near places traditionally considered magical: the megalithic constructions Stonehenge and Avebury or the nearby and mysterious hill Silbury. Little by little the phenomenon became more complex : the circles gave way to much more complicated designs, some of them drawn from the newborn science of chaos, such as the Mandelbrot set fractal. On August 21, 2006, the mysterious circles gave a new twist: next to the Chilbolton radio telescope, in the English county of Hampshire, a large number of small ‘pixels’ appeared whose meaning could only be appreciated by observing them from the sky : a face and the pictogram-message that was sent on November 16, 1974 from the immense Arecibo radio telescope, in Puerto Rico. The then director Frank Drake, one of the pioneers in the scientific search for possible extraterrestrial civilizations (SETI), wanted to celebrate the inauguration by sending a message to the globular cluster M13, located 25,000 light-years from us. Was it the ET’s response to our message? That is what some of the most imaginative “cearologists” – self-styled experts in cereal circles – believed.

extraterrestrial cerealogy

It is evident that, seeing the temporal progression of the circles, a planetary tease was hidden behind them. The ‘artists’ reached incomparable levels of skill and that became a relatively prosperous business : books and magazines dedicated exclusively to this phenomenon were part of it, while the owners of the farms where they appeared charged their admission. Societies and associations such as the British Center for Crop Circle Studies were created and conferences were convened with such striking titles as “Signs of Destiny: Cereal Circles and Sacred Geometry”. Pure science.

However, could there be a different origin for some of them? Leaving aside adventurous proposals that do not even deserve the name of hypothesis, such as extraterrestrials or mystical Druidic energies, the first to propose a natural cause was a meteorologist, Terence Meaden , interested in meteorological anomalies. According to him, the culprits could be small wind vortices that get trapped in the shelter of a hill and spin around a point creating perfect spirals. However, when more complicated circles began to appear, Meaden’s hypothesis collapsed. So he proposed, completely ad hoc , that they could be plasma vortices, a phenomenon related to the famous ball lightning that the great Hergé used in the Tintin adventure The 7 Crystal Balls . Such blunders are classic among scientists who try to find explanations before making sure that the phenomenon exists .

The war of the circles

The non-trivial problem facing the meteorologist was distinguishing genuine circles from false ones. Impossible. The “circle makers” shattered the illusions of the scientist. In this way, the history of the circles led to a war between cerearologists and counterfeiters groups , which already numbered in the dozens and with names as peculiar as Merlin & Co and The Bill Bailey Gang. One of the most famous clashes occurred in November 2000, when an unemployed programmer was fined for making circles in corn. It all happened when 29-year-old Matthew Williams heard an architect-turned-cerearologist, Michael Glickman, claim that a seven-pointed star that had just appeared in a field could not have been made by human hands and therefore had been the aliens. Williams, neither short nor lazy, marched one night to the nearby Marlborough field and did it. So he sent a photo via email to the “expert” and instead of admitting his mistake, the expert called the police!

The conspiracy theorists could not miss

Of course, the CIA could not be left out of the picture. As with the UFO issue, the conspiracy theorists discovered that the US intelligence services were behind a campaign of disinformation and intoxication aimed at sinking those researchers who are struggling to shed a little light on the mystery . Thus, part of the legend says that one of the most famous experts who gave the phenomenon its name, an engineer named Colin Andrews, stated in an interview in 1999 that a man from the CIA – at least that’s how he presented himself – wanted to recruit him . They would support him in all his investigations and keep him on the front page of the media. But after a few years he should offer a press conference and say only one thing: that it was all a fraud. Of course, he refused and they have been investigating him ever since. In that interview, he stated that important cerearologists, such as the aforementioned Meaden or Pat Delgado – whose book on circles became a best-seller -, had been “taken off the scene” and their reputations sunk.

Far from such paranoia, Andrews proposed two years ago that the circles were caused by fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. The grain is “electrocuted” and consequently flattened into a circle . A supporter of the ET origin of the phenomenon, in a conference given at Madison Square Garden he defended an idea very much to the liking of current Gaia mysticism: after several years of research financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, the conclusion had been reached that it was an interaction between human consciousness and the environment; the circles, like the changes we see in the weather, are part of the sign of our times.

Science zero, myth one

If there is a common denominator to this type of “research” it is that it was never published in a scientific journal to be analyzed and dissected by the scientific community. This has only happened with the biophysicist WC Levengood, who in 1994 already published an article in the journal Physiologia Plantarum where he defended that he had found certain anatomical anomalies in the plants crushed in the circles. In particular, the size of the existing nodules in the stems is larger than expected, something that is explained by the absorption of microwave radiation from a plasma ball originating in the ionosphere. Following this trail, a Dutch physicist, Eltjo H. Haselhoff -who works in the marketing department of a company dedicated to building magnetic resonance instruments-, proposed in the same magazine in 2000 that such anomalies were better explained assuming an electromagnetic point source : a ball lightning or ball of light . In short, both scientists propose that these “stretching” of the nodules have been caused by the heat given off by a source of electromagnetic radiation. For this, they are based on testimonies of people who saw bright points of light on the fields where circles appeared.

But time has just put things in their place: the cereal circles were nothing more than a “summer snake” , a type of journalism very dear to paranormal investigators, because with it they get the minute of glory they they claim so much Unfortunately for mystery seekers, what the cereal circles have taught us is how far human credulity can go.


Thin, P and Andrews, C. (1998) Circular evidence, Guild Ed.

Taylor, R. (2010) The crop circle evolves, Nature 465, 693,

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