The Breakfast Table

I Was a Crop-Circle-Making Alien

Dear George,

I once spent a few days at CERN when Margaret Thatcher was trying to get Britain to back out of it to save money and the Economist wanted an article saying whether it was value for money. The only thing harder to understand than the particles themselves was whether it was value for money (so I wrote a piece saying it was). The big thing then was the Higgs boson, and I don’t remember gluons being mentioned much. When discussing quarks, I feel like I’m walking down a staircase in the dark with no banister; I just do not know how to tell right from wrong.

Talking of which, there was an intriguing interview on British TV last night with a crop-circle maker. Do you recall crop circles? They are regular patterns that have appeared in crops of wheat every summer in southern England since the late 1980’s–usually circles but more recently including elaborate fractal patterns and all sorts of amazing designs that look extraordinary from the air.

I found the interview especially apposite because I used to make crop circles. I did so to satisfy myself, and prove to others, that they were man-made. I found the experience very frustrating because absolutely everybody, even hardheaded journalists, continued to believe that they could not all be man-made, however many we made. Ah, they would say, but there are too many, or there are no footprints (easy–walk on bar stools) or there are strange lights in the sky when they appear or there are weird noises (these turned out to be the song of the grasshopper warbler).

Even when the television filmed people making one, then filmed the “experts” pronouncing it “genuine” the next day, they still concluded the program by saying some are inexplicable. (The guy who made the program is now a minister of education in the government …) When the two men who started the whole craze owned up, a similar disbelief greeted them, and I was ridiculed and called a member of MI5, the spy agency, for my debunking attempts.

It taught me a lesson, the one I started this exchange with–that people prefer mystery to explanation. Which brings me back to the guy on TV last night (I didn’t catch his name). He had this very clever line. He said that he made lots of crop circles every year, including some very elaborate ones, but this did not mean that all crop circles were man-made. Some were definitely “genuine”–i.e., made by alien spacecraft or whatever. Moreover, some of the ones he made were also “genuine” in that they had attracted strange phenomena such as lights in the sky and unexplained additional patterns. What a brilliant way of weaving mystery into your art and having things both ways.