The Circular Logic of 'Signs'

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They call themselves cereologists, the motley collection of pseudo-scientists, paranormalists and unfulfilled na´fs who have suddenly been thrust into the spotlight by the new movie "Signs." Yes, these cereologists (after Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture) have dedicated themselves to the study of crop circles, those large patterns of flattened stalks that appear overnight, usually in fields of wheat, barley or oats.

Until 1980, only a few isolated incidents of grain field circles had been reported, most probably the work of bored farmers. That year, two English blokes named Doug and Dave, inspired by those reports, began sneaking out at night, using boards, rope and a stake to flatten crops in ever larger circles and in other geometric designs. Over the next decade, the profusion of crop circles became grist for the mills of the gullible, who attributed them not to hoaxes, but to UFOs, visiting aliens, meteorological phenomena, and even the frenzied mating antics of hedgehogs. The patterns began appearing around the world, and visitors to the circle sites reported strange sounds, mysterious lights and hovering saucers. Certainly, aliens were at work.

Doug and Dave waited until 1991 before creating a crop circle in the presence of a journalist, and then inviting a pioneering cereologist to examine it. Declared the ?expert,? to his everlasting shame: "No human being could have done this." The cat was out of the bag. Crop circles were the work of the two pranksters and assorted copycats.

But never underestimate the gullibility of Believers. Crop circles, and those awed and uneasy about them, have persisted in the press, in literature, on the Internet and in the best of circles. The eccentric Rockefeller — Laurence, that is — has financed further investigations, and now Mel Gibson has done his bit to revitalize cereology, suggesting aliens as the source of the phenomenon.

Wait a minute. Has anyone considered why in the Universe aliens would resort to such circular behavior? Here's a possible explanation, purely hypothetical, of course.

The scene: The royal palace on the planet Zorg, 18 light years away. The king, Erog, has summoned Rallod, his finance minister.

Erog: "I've decided to send an expedition to Earth, the little blue planet orbiting that most ordinary star in the Milky Way. It will be very expensive, and probably will drain the treasury, so I want taxes raised immediately. And, sad to say, the chances are that the crews won't make it back alive.

Rallod: But m'lord, what are the goals of such a costly and dangerous expedition?

Erog: In addition to eviscerating an occasional cow here and there, our men will spread out over the planet's fields of grain to create wonderful patterns.

Rallod: But, sire, what Zorgly purpose would that serve?

Erog: It would reveal to everyone that I have designs on planet Earth

Top that one, cereologists!