Strange Circles of Light Explained

A new enigma is spreading on the Internet. Some even call it a new kind of miracle. According to various Web sites, for the past several years unusual and unexplainable circles of light have been observed in many towns and cities. They began in the United States, but soon spread throughout the world.

"These circles," according to a writer named J.D. Rabbit at one of these sites, "most commonly appear on the sides of houses. ... In most cases they appear when the sun is out, generally when the sunlight is at a suitable angle to reflect from one or more windows onto the house adjacent. Some are seen only in the early morning; others appear at midday or late afternoon for a few hours; others can only be seen in spring and fall; and some have even been observed by bright moonlight. Many have been observed in the same place year after year, while others appear for a while and then vanish."

According to some observers, the circles are a kind of signal coming from UFOs, much "easier" for aliens to produce than crop circles. Others think it is a publicity stunt for some new movie, while some plainly speak of a hoax or of some unknown atmospheric phenomenon.

Religious sign?

"At this time of great political, economic, and social crisis," says Benjamin Creme, "Maitreya will inspire humanity to see itself as one family, and create a civilization based on sharing, economic and social justice, and global cooperation." Creme is the leader of Share International, a religious movement that awaits the coming of "Maitreya," a sort of extraterrestrial master who will enlighten the world. According to Creme, circles of light are just "another sign of Maitreya's presence in the world."

"Typically," continues J.D. Rabbit, "they move up or down, changing with the sun's angle as the earth rotates, with some descending at times to appear on the ground. Some shine astonishingly brightly, and as many as six varied circles—some of them double—have been seen at one location. In some places they have been seen on a number of houses in the same block."

Without realizing it, Rabbit probably has the solution to this mystery but fails to recognize it: These enigmatic circles of light, in fact, turn out to be ... simple reflections of sunlight.

What's going on

"It certainly is a curious reflection of sunlight on some windows," says Stefano Bagnasco, a physicist at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Turin, and a member of the Italian skeptic group CICAP. "I was able to directly observe some of these 'signs,' and in each case the building in front of which they appeared was completely covered with windows. Whenever the sun was in the right position to strike this reflecting surface, it would immediately produce the phenomenon. This is something that can certainly appear as quite odd, since these reflections cannot take place when both the windows and the building in front of it are perpendicular to the ground (unless the sun is very low on the horizon). But it happens quite frequently with inclined or open windows, like those found in modern buildings."

Sometimes the reflections take the shape of an X, depending on the curvature of the window creating the reflection.

"The whole effect is due to gravity and heat," explains Bagnasco. "The glass plate slightly curves in the sun, a couple of millimeters are enough, and it becomes a concave mirror, creating a spherical reflection. However, sometimes it can produce a cross or a double cross, according to how the plates are held by the frames, either with four or six hinges."

A member of CICAP in Turin, Stefano Bardelli, was even able to find just the perfect conditions, demonstrating very clearly how the phenomenon is created (see photographs).

The real mystery

The only mystery that remains is why the circles of light cause such marvel. Nobody is surprised at seeing such reflections when walking down the street, because one immediately realizes that they are produced by windows reflecting sunlight. It is only when dozens of pictures of such reflections appear on the World Wide Web, coming from different parts of the world—and newspapers pick up on it—that the "marvel effect" strikes.

It is not unusual for a phenomenon that has a quite simple explanation to become, by word of mouth, an inexplicable mystery. Orbs are another example.

"These 'circles of light,'" concludes Bagnasco, "have always been there, but were unheard of in the past; they were noticed and picked up by the media only when somebody looking at them thought they could not have a rational explanation. When something stops being just a simple light reflection and becomes a mystery, people start to see it because it becomes something that strikes the imagination: since crop circles became known, for example, each time a crop field shows some stalks bent by the wind they immediately become an obscure message from the aliens..."


Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and cofounder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His Web site is at www.massimopolidoro.com. This article first appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.