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Physics could be behind the secrets of crop-circle artists

01.08.2011
In this month's edition of Physics World, Richard Taylor, director of the Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon, takes a serious, objective look at a topic that critics might claim is beyond scientific understanding – crop circles.

As the global crop-circle phenomenon grows alongside advances in science and technology, Taylor notes how physics and the arts are coming together to produce more impressive and spectacular crop-circle patterns that still manage to maintain their mystery.

Today's crop-circle designs are more complex than ever, with some featuring up to 2000 different shapes. Mathematical analysis has revealed the use of constructions lines, invisible to the eye, that are used to design the patterns, although exactly how crop circles are created remains an open question.

According to Taylor, physics could potentially hold the answer, with crop-circle artists possibly using the Global Positioning System (GPS) as well as lasers and microwaves to create their patterns, dispensing with the rope, planks of wood and bar stools that have traditionally been used.

Microwaves, Taylor suggests, could be used to make crop stalks fall over and cool in a horizontal position – a technique that could explain the speed and efficiency of the artists and the incredible detail that some crop circles exhibit.

Indeed, one research team claims to be able to reproduce the intricate damage inflicted on crops using a handheld magnetron, readily available from microwave ovens, and a 12 V battery.

As Taylor writes, "Crop-circle artists are not going to give up their secrets easily. This summer, unknown artists will venture into the countryside close to your homes and carry out their craft, safe in the knowledge that they are continuing the legacy of the most science-oriented art movement in history."

Matin Durrani, Editor of Physics World, says, "It may seem odd for a physicist such as Taylor to be studying crop circles, but then he is merely trying to act like any good scientist – examining the evidence for the design and construction of crop circles without getting carried away by the side-show of UFOs, hoaxes and aliens."

Also in this month's issue:

End of an era – an interview with veteran CERN theorist John Ellis, who is back in the UK after almost four decades at the Geneva lab but still searching for the elusive Higgs boson.

Destination Moon – an interview with Ziyuan Ouyang, chief scientist of China's lunar programme.

Please mention Physics World as the source of these items and, if publishing online, please include a hyperlink to: http://www.physicsworld.com

Notes for editors:

1. Physics World is the international monthly magazine published by the Institute of Physics. For further information or details of its editorial programme, please contact the editor, Dr Matin Durrani, on tel +44 (0)117 930 1002. The magazine's website physicsworld.com is updated regularly and contains physics news, views and resources. Visit http://www.physicsworld.com.

2. For copies of Physics World and copies of the articles reviewed here contact Michael Bishop, IOP press assistant, tel +44 (0)117 930 1032, e-mail michael.bishop@iop.org.

3. The Institute of Physics is a leading scientific society promoting physics and bringing physicists together for the benefit of all.

It has a worldwide membership of around 40 000 comprising physicists from all sectors, as well as those with an interest in physics. It works to advance physics research, application and education; and engages with policymakers and the public to develop awareness and understanding of physics. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in professional scientific communications. Go to www.iop.org.

Michael Bishop | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.iop.org

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