In the collective modern imagination, crop circles are usually attributed to either aliens or a vast human conspiracy; possibly both. Some circle-watchers believe the designs are landing strips, maybe, or some kind of communiqué from outer space. Others argue they’re the result of secret government tests, or perhaps secret codes meant to convey information to satellites and aerial drones.

For all the talk about who makes them, few people discuss how. Do people (or little green men) stomp around willy-nilly until the stalks fall down? Or is something decidedly more high-tech going on? We talked to a circlemaker and a materials physicist to get some answers.

It’s a fair scientific question, according to Richard Taylor, a professor of physics and art at the University of Oregon. He believes circlemakers, as they’re known, are using some advanced technology, from microwaves to GPS, to make their increasingly complicated designs.

“Although it’s an odd topic, it actually is quite rigorous science — here’s a mystery, here is a potential hypothesis that would solve this,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of seeing something out there in the real world and using science to explain it. It’s just a little bit more exotic.”

Roughly 100 circles appear in the UK every summer, according to circlemakers. Taylor has a few ideas about how they’re done, which are outlined in an article in the research magazine Physics World. We talked to Taylor about his research and about his new ideas. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

Creating Crop Circles With Lasers and Microwaves, 8/24/11

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