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SETI article - Is the Latest Crop Circle a Message from E.T?

Originally posted at www.seti.org/general/ao_message_crop.html and still available from the Internet Archive

Crop circles. Undoubtedly you're aware of these intricate patterns carved in the wheat fields of (mostly) England. But could they be signals from visiting aliens? Despite the fact that many of the circles are known to be the work of pranksters, interest in crop circles has enjoyed a recent revival thanks to a pair of new patterns that appear in a field next to the Chilbolton Observatory in Hampshire, England. One is of a face, and many say that it looks like the archetypal "gray" alien so often seen in films and television. The second is a modified version of the 1974 Arecibo message, broadcast in the direction of the globular cluster M13 in November of that year.

The Arecibo message, which was designed by Frank Drake (who was then Director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and is now Chairman of the Board of the SETI Institute) together with his Observatory staff, was a simple graphic consisting of 73 rows of 23 "bits" per row. This number of rows and columns was chosen because each is a prime number. Prime numbers could be easily guessed by any recipients, and that would help them to decode the graphic. The message was sent by simple shifting of the signal between two frequencies in the 2,380 MHz band. It took three minutes to send the message.

The message itself gives the kind of information that any culture would want to learn about us: where we are located (at least within our solar system), what we look like (a crude stick figure), a simple drawing of the telescope used to send the message, and something about our biological construction (DNA and some of the building blocks of our biochemistry.) This message was sent as a "demonstration" to commemorate the upgrading of the 1,000 foot diameter Arecibo telescope with a new, more accurate reflector surface.

The crop circle found in Hampshire looks very much like the one broadcast in 1974. But there are some differences: the Hampshire pattern has replaced the Arecibo Telescope with another graphic that is reminiscent of a space satellite with solar cells. The diagram that depicts our solar system has been replaced with another that still has nine worlds, but planets 3 through 5 are offset, and the last is drawn larger than the others (or perhaps this is a depiction of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter). Finally, the graphic of the human has been modified by a stick figure that, while humanoid, has a far larger head.

Good fun, and a nice example of grain graffiti. But some folks think that this crop circle (and at least some of the more than a thousand other circles that have appeared in the last decade) are truly signals from visiting aliens. The aliens, in this view, have borrowed an idea from Carl Sagan's "Contact," and initiated communication by returning one of our own signals to us (albeit, somewhat modified.)

This is highly improbable. There is no evidence to suggest an other-than-earthly origin for these graphics. Some of the reasons why we are skeptical that this is a "signal" from afar are as follows:

Bottom line? The crop circles are decorative, impressive, and provocative, but not informative. We can expect better from true extraterrestrial intelligence.

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