Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Timely Code-Cracking

An interesting article appears in this morning's Wall Street Journal:

Two Centuries On, a Cryptologist Cracks a Presidential Code
The article covers the recent code-breaking by Dr. Lawren Smithline, Center for Communications Research in Princeton, NJ. Smithline was told by a neighbor several years ago about the secret messages hidden in correspondences between Thomas Jefferson and mathematician friend, Robert Patterson. The now 200+ year old cipher that Patterson claimed would "defy the united ingenuity of the whole human race," has finally been solved.

From the article:
To Mr. Patterson's view, a perfect code had four properties: It should be adaptable to all languages; it should be simple to learn and memorize; it should be easy to write and to read; and most important of all, "it should be absolutely inscrutable to all unacquainted with the particular key or secret for decyphering."

The contents of the cipher are interesting...the onset of the hidden message is quite familiar to many of us. It's meaning of course can't be ignored (dare I say, it be self-evident?) – the very founding message of this country, to be celebrated soon. But what I like most about this story is really, when it comes down to it, it is also simply an inside joke between friends.

It's sometimes nice to be privy to these things. It connects us to our past in a small, meaningful way, but also remind us that our leaders are not Gods, superheros, or celebrities. They are not 'good', 'evil', 'super- or sub-human'. They're just people, friends, pranksters, writers, and occasionally philosophers and cryptologists.

Which makes me think that maybe modern day linguists aren't the weird aliens I sometimes think we must be. But maybe that's just me.

Happy 4th of July, wordnerds!

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