Last summer crop circles were in the news with the release of the movie "Signs." This time around, the Bay Area has been graced with the real thing. The recent design found in a Rockville wheat field in Solano County appears to be the largest one ever reported in the United States and has attracted hundreds of visitors.
Scientific analysis of the formation?s plants and soils, in comparison to controls from elsewhere in the field, could help investigators determine if the Rockville crop circle was simply made by stealthy humans flattening plants with boards. Many believe that this is the only possible explanation.
However, sound evidence shows that not all crop circles are made so crudely. Intriguing data published in peer-reviewed scientific journals clearly establishes that some of these geometric designs, found in dozens of countries, could not have been made by "pranks with planks." A study about to be published by a team of scientists and funded by Laurance Rockefeller concludes "it is possible that we are observing the effects of a new or as yet undiscovered energy source."
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.
In another paper for Physiologia Plantarum (1999), Levengood and Talbott suggested that the energy causing crop circles could be an atmospheric plasma vortex -- multiple interacting electrified air masses that emit microwaves as they spiral around the earth's magnetic-field lines.
Some formations, however, contain cubes and straight lines. Astrophysicist Bernard Haisch, of the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Palo Alto, says that such "highly organized, intelligent patterns are not something that could be created by a force of nature."
But Haisch points out that since not all formations are tested, it is unknown how many are genuine. Nor is it likely that such complex designs could evolve so quickly in nature. "Natural phenomena make mountain ranges and form continents -- they don't learn geometry in ten years," says Haisch, a science editor for the Astrophysical Journal and author of over 120 scientific articles.
In 1999, philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller made possible the most definitive -- and most revealing -- study to date. The BLT Research Team collected hundreds of plant and soil samples from a seven-circle barley formation in Edmonton, Canada. The plants had both elongated nodes and expulsion cavities, and the soils contained the peculiar iron spheres, indicating a genuine formation. The controls showed none of these changes.
Mineralogist Sampath Iyengar, of the Technology of Materials Laboratory, in California, examined specific heat-sensitive clay minerals in these soils, using X-ray diffraction and a scanning electron microscope. He discovered an increase in the degree of crystallinity (the ordering of atoms) in the circle minerals, which statistician Ravi Raghavan determined was statistically significant at the 95 percent level of confidence.
"I was shocked," says Iyengar, a 30-year specialist in clay mineralogy. "These changes are normally found in sediments buried for thousands and thousands of years under rocks, affected by heat and pressure, and not in surface soils."
Also astounding was the direct correlation between the node-length increases in the plants and the increased crystallization in the soil minerals -- indicating a common energy source for both effects. Yet the scientists could not explain how this would be possible. The temperature required to alter soil crystallinity would be between 1,500 and 1,800 degrees F. This would destroy the plants.
Understanding the possible ramifications of these findings, Talbott sought the expertise of an emeritus professor of geology and mineralogy at Dartmouth College, Robert C. Reynolds Jr., who is former president of the Clay Minerals Society. He is regarded by his colleagues as the "best-known expert in the world" on X-ray diffraction analysis of clay minerals.
Reynolds determined that the BLT Team's data had been "obtained by competent personnel, using current equipment."
The intense heat required for the observed changes in crystallinity "would have incinerated any plant material present," he confirms in a statement for the Rockefeller report. "In short, I believe that our present knowledge provides no explanation."
Meteorologist James W. Deardorff, professor emeritus at the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, and previously a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, states in a 2001 Physiologia Plantarum commentary that the variety, complexity and artistry of crop circles "represent the work of intelligence," and not a plasma vortex. "That is why the hoax hypothesis has been popularly advocated," he says.
However, he points out, the anomalous properties in plant stems thoroughly documented by Levengood and Talbott could not possibly have been implemented by hoaxers. Deardorff describes one 1986 British formation in which upper and lower layers of crop were intricately swirled and bent perpendicular to each other, in a fashion that "defies any explanation."
"People don't want to face up to this, and scientists have to deal with the ridicule factor," he said in a recent interview.
Adding to the puzzle, professional filmmakers have documented bizarre daytime "balls of light" at crop-circle sites. Light phenomena were observed by multiple witnesses at the site of the Canadian circle so meticulously examined under the Rockefeller grant.
British photographer Andrew Buckley captured a bird on film diving at a ball of light as if intending to grab it and then quickly retreating before impact, clearly establishing the three dimensional reality of the light. Steven Alexander captured a nearby farmer stopping his tractor to look at a ball of light passing overhead, in footage analyzed by Nippon TV in Japan. "These images, and others that I know to be authentic, were captured in broad daylight over actual crop circles," says Alexander. "This would be virtually impossible to hoax."
Dr. Eltjo Hasselhoff, a research and experimental physicist from the Netherlands who has been studying crop circles for over ten years, says he can not explain where the lights come from. He describes them only as "bright, fluorescent flying light objects?sized somewhere between an egg and a football."
Ball lightning, a high energy plasma, is the closest known natural phenomena resembling the behavior of the observed balls of light, but it is usually associated with thunderstorms and tornadoes. "We don't know what ball lightning is, but I don't think it has anything to do with what's at the crop circles," says Bernard Haisch.
In a 2001 commentary for Physiologia Plantarum, Hasselhoff looked at node abnormalities documented by Levengood and Talbott in three Dutch formations to see if they could be correlated to the effects that would be created by an "electromagnetic point source" above the center of a circle, emitting heat. Strange lights had been documented during the formation of one of these circles.
According to Hasselhoff's calculations, the measured abnormalities could be explained "by assuming that a ball of light had caused the node swelling effect." A previous study by Levengood had also shown a linear correlation between the changes in the plants and their distance from a central energy source, with node affects more pronounced at the center of the circle. This research is suggestive, but does not give us any definitive explanation for the lights or their relationship to the creation of the designs.
Scientists face real and serious questions in confronting this mystery. Could this be secret laser technology beamed down from satellites? Is it a natural phenomenon? Is there a consciousness or intelligence directing an energy form yet unknown to us?
"To look at the evidence and go away unconvinced is one thing," says astrophysicist Haisch. "To not look at the evidence and be convinced against it . . . is another. That is not science."
Linda Howe saw the exact same kind of bright lights hovering over a crop circle in England that had an elaborate crop circle in it the next day. What's really happening? Leslie Kean is an investigative reporter and producer with KPFA Radio based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a special interview with her up on our subscribers section.
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