Crop circularity

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2008 3:57 pm

It’s really hard to find anything dumber than crop circles. I don’t usually use words like that, but c’mon! Aliens come here from a bazillion miles away just to flatten cereal stalks?

And yet there is an astonishing range of dumbosity even within the crop circle field (haha, "field"). The latest, reported on a Faux Fox News website, has one that has — be prepared to gasp — the number pi encoded in it.

GASP!

I’ve read the description twice, and I still can’t figure out what the guy is saying. But it seems suspicious that rounding is involved. Whenever you do that, precision kinda goes out the window. But let’s assume, sure, pi is in the crop circle. Then my fave is this:

Crop-circle enthusiasts claim that’s just more proof that the barley and wheat stalks have been stomped on by aliens who seem to have a special affinity for southern England.

Y’know, that would be more convincing if humans didn’t know what pi was. But since we do, how does that preclude humans from creating this circle?

As the great Peter Venkman once said, "No human would stack books this way". That’s a skeptical mantra I wish more people would learn.

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to BABloggee Rick White.

Comments (74)

  1. davidlpf

    No what is sillier is that aliens would come all away from another solar system to just probe a human. Ok once I can see but that seems all they do when they visit.

  2. justcorbly

    Crop circles with pies? Yum!

    Who knew the aliens are pastry chefs?

  3. Paul Clapham

    The innermost circular segment is 3 tenths of the circle, the next one out is 1 tenth of the circle, the next one out is 4 tenths of the circle, and so on. Yeah, the explanation wasn’t all that crystal clear.

    The other significant piece of information we get from this is that the aliens use base 10 just like we do.

  4. Thomas Siefert

    I can’t make head or tales of the hand drawn explanation, it look like there’s been a piss-up at the dart board factory.
    Aside from that, of course you would somehow be able to conclude pi from the pattern, it’s a bloody circle….

  5. Calli Arcale

    Doesn’t *every* circle have pi encoded into it, by definition?

    The method for arriving at pi from that crop circle sounds suspiciously reminiscent of numerology — meaning that the “encoding” of pi may have been entirely accidental.

  6. Kaptain K

    It also assumes that the aliens use base ten!

  7. Isabel Lugo explains how you can get π out of the picture.

    “Read” from the inside out; notice that the main part of the figure consists of ten concentric arcs joined by short segments. The arcs have angular lengths 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, 9, 2, 6, 5, and 4 tenths of a circle.

    The article says that “This may cause more controversy in the debate whether crop circles are a result of extraterrestrial activity.” It seems to me evidence against extraterrestriality; there’s no reason why extraterrestrials would use decimal. The usual hypothesis seems to be that if aliens want to send us numbers, they’ll do so in binary; this seems reasonable because 2 is really the only “special” numerical base, being the smallest practically usable one. (You can’t send arbitrary real numbers in “base 1″, and the time to send the integer N scales like N, as opposed to like log N in any base greater than 1.

    Anyway, humans already know the value of π, and to about 1.2 trillion more digits than are given in that wheat field, so there’s no way in Hades to claim that ETs are beaming down super-sophisticated mathematical knowledge into our local plant life. Now, if a proof of the Goldbach Conjecture or the Riemann Hypothesis were written out in wheat, we might grant that something unusual was going on — although instead of aliens, it might well just be Will Hunting and his drinking buddies.

  8. Sili

    This clearly means that the aliens want you to vote for McCain!

    Logic? Why do *I* have to use logic. Faux doesn’t.

  9. What’s more, when you divide the circumference of the crop circle by its diameter, you ALSO get pi! That’s just too big a coincidence to ignore!

    And now, a musical interlude: Pi

  10. ‘We found a crop circle. It simply couldn’t have been made by any of us. We carefully measured the circumference, and the diameter, and to our utter amazement, when we divided the circumference by the diameter, we got 3.141628376514! That’s incredibly close to pi! It simply must be galactic aliens giving us a clue and seeing if we’re smart enough to figure it out.”

    I don’t want to cast aspersions on Mr Reed, but the title “Astrophysicist” is just a little bit of a stretch. From his own website:

    Reed Development Associates

    “1978 Successfully completed examinations for Ph.D. in Astronomical Instrumentation, U of A, Tucson AZ”

    Then maybe the overzealous BBC writer threw that in.

    They get the digits of pi by drawing radii out to cross the steps in the spiral. The angle of the first step is 3 units, the second 1, the third 4.

    If you think of crop circles as art, they’re really quite interesting.

    With the millions of surveillance cameras in England, you’d think they’d put 1 or 2 out in crop-circle-land and catch a few of those flying sorcerers.

  11. Daniel C.

    What I like, is how it represents pi IN BASE TEN. As in, the numeral system that *humans* use. Not binary, or something more obtuse, as you might expect aliens to. All the more proof that this was done by humans.

  12. KC

    Stupid? I for one appreciate the human ingenuity in devising the designs. It’s a lovely form of art. Of course, it’s not my wheat field, either.

    Besides, perhaps there’s . . . wait: that’s a good plot for a story.

    Never mind.

    Anyway, it’s been years since it’s been shown that crop circles have a human origin, I’m surprised anyone thinks it’s space aliens.

  13. So this is great. Various news reports <a href=”http://wayofthewoo.blogspot.com/2008/06/mathematicians-perplexed.html”say things like:

    -Mathematicians perplexed
    -Astrophysicists find it mindboggling
    -Baffling crop circle equals pi

    And one of my favorites:
    —-Mr Reed said: “The fact the pi decimal point is included and there is rounding up to ten decimal places is mind-boggling”

    Lucy Pringle, who has spent decades researching crop circles, said that although she thought some were man-made, she found it hard to believe such an intricate crop circle could have been created by humans.

    She added: “You can do it on a computer, but you try putting that in a field in the middle of the night and achieving that degree of mathematical accuracy.”—-

    I bet we can pull some resources together and get pi up to 11 decimal places of accuracy. Sure, it’ll be hard, but it will be worthwhile just to show Ms. Pringle up!

  14. So this is great. Various news reports say things like:

    -Mathematicians perplexed
    -Astrophysicists find it mindboggling
    -Baffling crop circle equals pi

    And one of my favorites:
    —-Mr Reed said: “The fact the pi decimal point is included and there is rounding up to ten decimal places is mind-boggling”

    Lucy Pringle, who has spent decades researching crop circles, said that although she thought some were man-made, she found it hard to believe such an intricate crop circle could have been created by humans.

    She added: “You can do it on a computer, but you try putting that in a field in the middle of the night and achieving that degree of mathematical accuracy.”—-

    I bet we can pull some resources together and get pi up to 11 decimal places of accuracy. Sure, it’ll be hard, but it will be worthwhile just to show Ms. Pringle up!

  15. Crux Australis

    LOL the Fox website describes people who know pi to 10 dp as ‘math geeks’!!

  16. Reverend J

    Apparently aliens round up!

  17. rho

    To quote from a conversation I’ve had about this in another blog:

    You know, I really wish the aliens would stop [redacted] over the digits of pi (in base 10, how nice of them) and would get around to proving theorems. For an extraterrestrial superintelligence, this is childhood macaroni art.

    — I wonder what Betelgeusian for “I have a wonderful proof of this, but it won’t fit in this field” is.

    — – It’s encoded in the sizes of the three circles at the end.

    (from http://community.livejournal.com/mathsex/183040.html?thread=2136320#t2136320)

  18. Richard H.

    My prediction: the next “astonishing” crop circle will include base-2. The one after that will be hexadecimal. The “beings” making these crop circles probably have computers and are constructing the designs on there, transferring them on to paper, then scaling it up.

    It’s funny to see the evolution of crop circle design, from mere circles, to intersecting circles, to such intricate and often beautiful things.

    Except, of course to the wheat farmers who want the smart-ass scoundrels stopped.

  19. kppttrst

    I don’t know too much about crop circles, but what’s this I’ve been hearing about from scientists even today that they are “suddle challenges” that, somewhat evidently, were not accepted until the ’70′s?

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
  21. The fact that this was done in base-10 proves that aliens didn’t do it, as everyone knows that Greys have only three (maybe four) digits on each of their two hands.

    Their arms often reach down to their knees, and some accounts give them three digits, or three digits and a thumb on each hand.

    This would make them naturally count in base-6 or base-8. We’ll split the difference and make it base-7. Pi in base-7 to 13 (that’s 10 in base-10) digits is 3.066365143.

    Out-math-geek that. :P

  22. NCE

    Regardless of where they come from, crop circles are really cool! I think people spend far too much time talking about aliens (obviously any time spent talking about aliens making crop circles is too much time) and not enough talking about how beautiful they are.

    Someone deserves a pat on the back for making that. Although I’m sure the farmer doesn’t agree with me.

  23. Gadren

    @Crux Australis:

    Remember, this is Fox’s audience we’re talking about. ;)

  24. My mathematician spouse is wondering why they didn’t do 31 digits :P (which is the point where you’d reach a zero)

    Must give props to the folks who do these, though, it really is spectacular art.

  25. Andy

    I don’t care who makes these things. They are spectacularly beautiful as is all proof in geometry.

  26. andy

    Oddly enough, I am re-reading Demon Haunted World; and while at the doctors office with my daughter today, I was reading the “Aliens” chapter (which deals with abductions and crop circles).

    Obviously, this isn’t aliens. It’s a personal message from beyond the gr… I mean “from the other side” for me from Carl Sagan, himself.

    I need to contact Fox News. There’s no way this is a coincidence; and since they’ve already confirmed that this wasn’t made by human hands, I must be right. This is very news worthy, indeed.

  27. Quiet Desperation

    I don’t get how this keeps going.

    Some of the circle making groups have ALLOWED THEMSELVES TO BE FILMED making designs, and have shown how they can make a complex pattern if a few hours in the dark.

    THEY HAVE A FREAKING WEB SITE!!!!

    http://www.circlemakers.org/

    They have been “out of the closet” for YEARS now. Some of them have made patterns in fields as part of advertising campaigns.

  28. starwatcher

    The Andromedan Council have been in meetings lately to discuss the fate of the Planet Earth. They are concerned about humanity’s path, and will intervene if the dark cabal of forces which are currently in charge of affairs do not change their manipulitive and controlling ways. This includes the stranglehold that they have over science and technology, keeping those informed in the dark, and demonising science to those misinformed. Free energy, anti-gravity propulsion devices, healthcare cures to name but a few are being kept from us. The only truth is light and light is information and vice versa.

  29. geomaniac

    “Back off man — I’m a scientist!”

    Most hawesome Dr. Peter Venkman quote ever!

    “Who you gonna call?”

  30. Michelle

    It’s exactly what I said when I read that article earlier on

    Obviously only that guy and the aliens know about Pi. No HUMAN would ever do THAT! Gasp!

    Gimme a break. It’s just that the guy was very creative.

  31. CamelToe

    ghostbusters!?!? dun dun dun…

  32. CamelToe

    michelle agreed.

    do
    you
    like
    camel
    toes?

  33. CamelToe
  34. Where’s Rory Tate, Circle Researcher when you need him?

    (sigh, I’ve scoured google and youtube for one of the old commercials, but they’re not there!)

  35. SkepticTim

    Pardon my stupidity please – but if its round (really) isn’t pi automatically encoded (by definition)?

  36. Mighty Favog

    What’s really funny, is the artists who actually make the crop cicles in England have a website–circlemakers.org.

  37. Nathaniel

    “The innermost circular segment is 3 tenths of the circle, the next one out is 1 tenth of the circle, the next one out is 4 tenths of the circle, and so on. ”

    Amusing. The crop-circle makers are playing a fairly elaborate pun on the phrase ‘pie chart’.

  38. Adam

    Once Humanity finds its first inhabited planet we will continue the tradition and ruin some poor farmer’s crops.

    Then we’ll wander around the surface buck naked scaring the crap out of them even though we are deathly allergic to a substance that covers 70% of their planet’s surface.

    (yes, I just got done watch “Signs” again… guilty pleasure)

  39. Are we really expected to believe that a species capable of interstellar spaceflight can’t do any better than nine decimal places?

  40. Nicole

    From the article: “…pi, the irrational but extremely important number…”

    Wait, so irrationality in numbers tends it to be unimportant, but irrational reporters are totally cool?

  41. Henry Holland

    I love how, at the link that Quiet Desperation provided, the section about a gathering of Circlemakers has almost all of the faces pixelated out. I’m sure it’s purely so they don’t get hauled before a local magistrate, but I bet there’s someone out there thinking “Wow! If it wasn’t for the pixels, The Man would hunt them down and silence them!”.

  42. Quiet Desperation

    I’m sure it’s purely so they don’t get hauled before a local magistrate,

    Actually, the circle makers sometimes are in cahoots with whoever owns the farm. The farmer, you see, can charge the crop circle woo woos for parking and sell refreshments, photos, T-shirts, etc. The pressed down crops generally return to their previous vertical state, so there’s not even a cost.

    I think the circle makers also play up the mystery a bit.

  43. So, basically, they’ve made a huge pi-chart ?
    Yes, you may groan.

  44. quasidog

    People that reckon crop circles to be from an alien source are also the same sort of people that see a magic trick performed by some magician, and because they don’t know how it worked they then suspect the magician might actually be using real magic. ….. and the same group that think astrology works. … and that fairies are real ….. and that Bush didn’t cheat to get in.

  45. Tim G

    If a crop circle had encoded 4.669201609103 before the advent of electronic computers, I would have been a bit more impressed.

    Anyway, I think that an extraterrestrial civilization could adopt a base four system as a longhand and a hexadecimal system as a shorthand.

    Knowing the implications of the zero element, the identity element and the commutative property, memorizing the multiplication table for base four would really just comprise of 2*2, 2*3 and 3*3. Little alien children could master the concept of numbers and multiplication quickly. Since Log10(4) = 0.602, base four would be 60.2% as efficient as the decimal system in encoding numbers, yet numerical keypads using base four could be easily operated blindly.

    Each digit in the hexadecimal shorthand system would have a pair of base four longhand digits associated with it. A half order of magnitude in a hexadecimal system would be a factor of four and a quarter order of magnitude would be a factor of two.

  46. Ronn Blankenship

    Crux Australis wrote:

    “LOL the Fox website describes people who know pi to 10 dp as ‘math geeks’!!”

    So what would they call folks who remember it to 16 sig. figs. because that’s the maximum that could be stored in a double precision floating point number in FORTRAN on old mainframes?

  47. Ryan

    This reminds me of the awesome song Little Twelvetoes:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJYMSc6ppb8

  48. Identity 4

    We humans may be able to build rocket-ships, 160+ story skyscrapers, and 26.659km long scientific instruments that smash protons together at near the speed of light; but making accurate crop circles?? Im not buying that for one second…that is just TOO far out there in science fiction. It MUST be aliens!!

  49. Eddie

    And I thought the Crop Circle was as now as dead as the dodo. But then, thought that Creationist poster was a joke.

  50. Wayne Robinson

    I would have been more impressed if the crop circle had shown “pi” as 3.00000 exactly (as the Bible reckons it is, see 1.Kings 7,23 etc), and that would really have pleased “the Bible is literally true” crowd no end. I thought the pretty complex geometric pattern on the “Top of the Crops 2007″ http://www.circlemakers.org/totc2007.html much better.

  51. Gareth

    “It’s really hard to find anything dumber than crop circles. I don’t usually use words like that, but c’mon! Aliens come here from a bazillion miles away just to flatten cereal stalks?”

    Sure.

    Earth is just a big canvas for a bunch of alien art students.

  52. I actually saw a few crop circles in England in the early 90′s. We were on our way toward Bath and saw some off the road. I was on a hill looking across a field at them thinking “Some jackass spent all night doing that”. And of course, the other American Tourist next to me said out loud. “They’ve proven that there is alien life visiting us.”

    Thankfully there was a pub close by.

  53. Sili

    hmmm – Now I’m thinking that when I discover the proof that Riemann’s Hypothesis is undecidable I’ll have to draw it out in a wheat field. That’ll certainly make for a naming convention to beat out “student’s t”.

  54. Sir Eccles

    The funniest thing about crop circles are the TV documentaries. You know the ones where the producer gets his camera crew to film some locals flattening the stalks with a board and two pieces of string then invites the true believer crop circle investigators to come have a look. The quotes are usually priceless…

    “Look how each stem is individually bent”

    “I can feel their presence, just look at my dowsing rods go!”

    “Wow this pattern is so complex”

    “This is definitely a genuine crop circle”

    etc…

  55. TR

    Not only is it surprising that a 3-fingered alien would use a base-10 number system, but the really astounding coincidence is that these creatures from another world also use a small round dot to divide the one’s place from the tenths! We haven’t even managed to come to a unanimous decision about that one here on Earth! (Many human cultures use a decimal comma instead of a decimal point.)

  56. Ken S.

    I find it interesting that the aliens also use a “…” to signify a continuation to infinity, just like us ‘lil humans do.

  57. quasidog:

    People that reckon crop circles to be from an alien source are also the same sort of people that see a magic trick performed by some magician, and because they don’t know how it worked they then suspect the magician might actually be using real magic. ….. and the same group that think astrology works. … and that fairies are real ….. and that Bush didn’t cheat to get in.

    In other words, Fox’s target audience.

  58. MedTek(sandra)

    To be fair, the Metro (daily free commuter paper for London) and other London papers had a pretty good explanation of how this represents PI, and didn’t inject any of the “done by aliens” brouhaha into it. Instead, most of their article seemed to focus on the fact that it was just cool that someone would do this.

  59. Joe Meils

    Quick! Someone turn crop circles into a “theory” so that we can teach it to school children in Louisiana! I can see it now: FFA, Algerbra I, Creationist Theory, and Intro to Aliens in Your Cornfeild, (right after gym class)

  60. rob

    i once told my physics students an easy way to remember approximately how many seconds there are in a year is pi X 10^7. one student asked why it was pi and not some other number. i told him because the earth’s orbit is round.
    :)

  61. skrap1r0n

    I by no means believe crop circles are anything but man made, however I find them extremely cool and imaginative.

    That said, this particular crop circle is particularly interesting. I didn’t read every comment, so if this has been said, my apologies, but The way I understand it, the circle is divided into 10ths. starting in the middle, move 108 degrees clockwise for 3, there you will see the decimal, then 36 more degrees for 1, 144 more degrees for 4 etc.

  62. It being a circle, by it’s very nature isn’t pi already “encoded” in it? :0)

  63. themadlolscientist

    Some of them have made patterns in fields as part of advertising campaigns.

    =LOL= Like this one?

  64. Adela

    It’s all about getting the crop insurance agents to pay out.

  65. TR

    Hey Ken S.

    I didn’t even recognize the ellipses – good catch!

  66. Irishman

    If you look at the article, check the picture box. There are three thumbnails under the picture. Click the middle one (with pretty colors). It visually demonstrates what the words are trying to depict.

    This is a visual representation of pi. “Encoding” is a confusing word. And yes, there is a decimal point and an ellipsis (…).

  67. KevinS

    i once told my physics students an easy way to remember approximately how many seconds there are in a year is pi X 10^7. one student asked why it was pi and not some other number. i told him because the earth’s orbit is round.

    I’m confused because the two have nothing to do with each other aside from coincidence. Plus the earth’s orbit isn’t round.

    Anyways, someone needs to get on making a base twenty-six crop circle to further confound the crop-circle folk. I’ve already got the perfect encoding:
    11-12-1-1-20-21 space 2-1-18-1-4-1 space 14-9-11-20-15

  68. Grendels dad

    Am I the only one who expected something about circular irrigation patterns after reading the title of this post? Maybe some cool satalite photos?

    Must have left my woo filter set too high… And my irony meter is still in the shop. Some days you just can’t win.

  69. Tim G

    KevinS,

    rob had a “smiley face” at the end of his post. The aspect of earth’s elliptical orbit is very close to unity, btw.

    Anyway, I think 10^7.5 is just as easy to remember and is twice as accurate.

  70. Wouldn’t EVERY crop “circle” have pi encoded into it, by the simple fact of it being a CIRCLE???? The very nature of circles is based on the encoding of pi through area and circumference.

  71. amphiox

    Now if there was ever found a crop circle that DID NOT encode pi, no matter how we analyzed it, then that might be something interesting.

  72. Kid Cool

    I don’t think those aliens are that smart they don’t have a 0

  73. Irishman

    Lyle, as I already said, “encoded” is confusing people. This is a visual representation of pi in base 10. Quite different from the fact that pi is the relationship between diameter and circumference of a circle.

  74. As usual, it is being ignored that there is physical evidence that _some_ formations are not man-made:

    http://www.bltresearch.com

    There is also historical evidence for primarily simpler formations dating back at least a few centuries from multiple countries (including detailed accounts by spectroscopist J. Rand Capron in Nature magazine, 1880 and professor Robert Plot, LLD in A Natural History of Staffordshire, 1686):

    http://www.bltresearch.com/otherfacts.html

    Widespread current hoaxing has simply now overshadowed what may be another interesting (natural?) phenomenon.

    Additional info is also on the CCCRN web site.

    Paul Scott Anderson
    founder
    Canadian Crop Circle Research Network
    http://www.cccrn.ca
    (1995-2008)

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