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Wednesday, 9 August, 2000, 07:53 GMT 08:53 UK
Going round in circles
Circles BBC
Crop circles: There is nothing to explain
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Most people have heard of crop circles, those fascinating and often beautiful, symmetrical patterns cut into the crops mostly in southern England.

They first came to media attention eight years ago when the strange circles started appearing in Wiltshire.

At first, they were just circles. Then rings and circles within circles appeared - fairly simple shapes that could possibly have a natural explanation. Such as the vortex idea. Perhaps, some speculated, a mini-tornado could strike the ground swirling the crops into the symmetrical patterns. But then the crop circle phenomena changed.

The circles became ever more complex and were clearly not a natural phenomenon. We saw circles that were very intricately designed according to advanced mathematical theory. On more than one occasion, a crop circle was later added to and filled in with extra circles and shapes. To some, this was all very curious.

Obviously, they said, these circles were being made by aliens, or perhaps visitors from some other dimension, or perhaps they were sites of cosmic energy breaking through into our continuum. Perhaps, they speculated, it was our own planet trying to tell us something about our stewardship of the environment.

Alien encounter

I recall pleasant days in Wiltshire driving from hill to hill looking for new circles. When I found one it was frequently guarded by the farmer who owned the field and who charged people to go in and see it. Clever.

Perhaps, I did encounter aliens! Some of the people I met who felt the cosmic energies in the circles did not have any relation to rational human beings.

A conference was called in Wiltshire at which it was said science was going to get to the bottom of the crop circle mystery.

What a waste of time. There is no mystery to crop circles. Those attending the conference would find their answer just a few miles to the east.

Over the rolling hills of northern Hampshire and Surrey, there is a tiny church called All Saints in the village of Ockham near Guildford. In the church is a window dedicated to William of Occam (its spelling then) who lived between 1285 and 1347.

Simple explanation

History does not record if he ever saw a crop circle but even if he did he would not have been fooled by the mumbo-jumbo nonsense that fools many crop circle watchers today.

William of Occam is responsible for one of the most powerful scientific principles we have, Occam's razor. He said: "What can be done with fewer assumptions is done in vain with more." In other words, in science the simplest explanation is usually the best.

And so it is with the crop circles. They are clearly made by an intelligence so the question is, what intelligence?

Are they made by an intelligence from outer space or from another plane of existence, whatever that means. This requires the belief in other forms of intelligent life in the Universe. Or are they made by a familiar form of intelligence, the existence of which involves no new assumptions - humans.

Exactly how the circles are made is a detail, but there is no mystery about the phenomena. They are made by people, straight and simple, and anyone who tells you differently is either misguided, a fool or a charlatan.

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