Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Our Fascination with Secret Codes


Last week a helpful reader sent me a link to a website about secret codes.  The site, run by Elonka Dunin, has interesting stories about codes and ciphers, both the solved and the unsolved.

For a novel writer, the concept of a code is difficult to understand.  We write stories, and then try to share them with readers.  Most novelists strive for clarity--we want the reader to understand the story so we work hard to make it clear.  And the more people that read it, the better.

A code is something very different.  Whether it's a secret message between lovers or governments or criminal conspiracies, there is a deliberate effort to make sure others don't read it.  Should the message fall into the wrong hands, the coders hope their methods are strong enough to resist being cracked.

It's a very odd mindset, and yet secret codes stir our imagination.  And people have been using codes for a very long time.  In some cases what we label a code may simply be an ancient language system we haven't figured out.  For example, the Phaistos Disc or Linear A, both discovered on clay tablets on the island of Crete from about 1800 BC.  Or the Indus Script, which contains 400 signs from the Indus Valley civilization of 2600 to 1800 BC.  These may be ancient languages rather than purpose-built secret codes. 

But most codes are designed to hide information.  The famous Voynich Manuscript is a good example of a code we've yet to solve.  The manuscript is named after a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered it in a collection of ancient manuscripts in Italy in 1912.

The Voynich Manuscript not only has pages of text in a language no one has ever seen, it also has strange drawings of plants, astronomy, and people.  One drawing looks like seven naked women in a large hot tub, which may mean this is the oldest known example of an eighth grade boy's spiral notebook. 

However, the Voynich Manuscript also contains an interesting spiral drawing that is close to a mirror image of our galaxy, the Milky Way.  Even the history of the manuscript is odd.  A mysterious stranger arrived at the court of King Rudolph II of Bohemia in 1586 with an old, indecipherable manuscript.  Now Rudolph was fond of astrology and other forms of weirdness, so he paid the stranger 300 gold pieces for the book.  A note with the manuscript stated that Roger Bacon, the English astronomer of the 13th century, had written the coded work.

Four hundred years later, and we still don't know who wrote it or what it says.  But some codes have been solved.

Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated with codes, and issued challenges in magazines to other amateur cryptographers in the late 1830s.  Poe eventually released two ciphers in a magazine, claiming they'd been sent in by a reader, but he may have designed them himself.  These two codes remained unbroken until 1992, when the first was solved, and 2000 for the second code. 

I think this is part of the lure of codes--that clever amateurs can design their own and crack those of others.  It's not a realm completely restricted to governments and their vast resources.  Anyone who has an interest can learn about codes and try to make their own.

Or attempt to solve a historical code that has confounded others for hundreds of years.  Maybe you'll solve one.

(By the way, there are no hidden codes in this blog post.  Sorry.  However, you can find Elonka's interesting site here, plus an article on the Voynich Manuscript, and one on Poe's challenge and how it was solved.  The picture is from Bokler and shows E. A. Poe's second code.)

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