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Computers Help Decode 250-Year-Old Cipher

| 25 Oct 2011 21:50

Computer scientists, not cryptoanalysts, were the ones to crack the code of a 18th century German secret society.

The human mind has a fascination with codes and breaking them. When there exists a code that cannot be solved, though, that's even more mesmerizing. After the Cold War, officials found a book of seemingly incoherent symbols in the basement of the East Berlin Academy but no cryptoanalyst has been able to decipher the 105 page manuscript containing over 75,000 characters. Apart from a author's mark "Philipp 1866" and a word on the last page "Copiales 3", the beautifully bound book known as the "Copiale Cipher" was completely incomprehensible. But after feeding some of the symbols into algorithms similar to Google Translate, Kevin Knight from USC in cooperation with Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden were able to translate the document in its entirety.

The team first committed the 90 different handwritten characters into something that a computer could understand. Some of the symbols looked like Greek or Roman characters, and the team first isolated them to see if they contained the real message. After running those characters through a program searching for any meaningful groupings using more than 80 different languages, the team surmised that maybe those letters were mere red herrings.

Knight decided to concentrate on the other symbols and grouped similar-looking ones together, assuming that they might mean the same letter or phrase. When the group applied this thinking to the German language, some sentences could be read like "Ceremonies of Initiation" and "Secret Section". Knight and company ran the algorithms a bit more and realized that the Roman letters of "a," "b" and so on were not nulls, or meaningless, but they in fact denoted spaces in the German words. Armed with that knowledge, the team was able to complete the translation.

The book describes the initiation rituals of a secret society called the Oculist Order. To be honest, a lot of the text isn't terribly interesting but if you want to take a look, the manuscript is translated into English here.

Knight, Megyesi and Schaefer plan to use similar techniques to tackle some of the world's most well-known cryptography problems. The meaning of three notes sent by the Zodiac killer are still unknown, while the full meaning of the Kryptos sculpture housed in the CIA headquarters still eludes even the top codebreakers of the U.S. Who knows, maybe the team will even try to break the code found on the person of a man found dead in St. Louis in 1999 that the FBI asked help with earlier this year?

Source: Paper on the Copiale Cipher

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