Hi Dr. Curry, I’m working on a piece for PopularMechanics.com that fact checks the science behind the television show "Fringe." I was hoping to speak with you about the episode airing tonight on Fox. In the episode, scientists will attempt to crack an ancient code to find a kidnapper. I'd like to ask you a few questions via email about ancient codes and how we attempt to decipher them once they're uncovered. I'd also like to gather a bit of background about how codes were used. I thought you'd be the perfect candidate. As background, PopularMechanics.com receives 3.5 million unique visitors and 9 million page views each month. Would you have a few minutes to reply back if I sent the questions over? Thanks, Allie T.
Fringe Is on the Right Track With Code-Cracking Science: Last week, Massive Dynamic was the secret force behind a young boy's mind controlling ability. But in this week's episode, "August," the Fringe team encounters the Observers—strange men who pop up during important events in history and keep a log of mysterious code that the agents must try to crack. PM spoke with etymologist Rex Curry about deciphering ancient codes and symbols to see how (and if) it can be done. By Allie Townsend Published on: November 20, 2009
This week's episode begins with the kidnapping of Christine, a 27-year-old student from Boston, who, before her abduction, was on her way out of town to study in Rome. Her kidnapper is a man wearing a 60s-era suit, without hair or eyebrows. The Observer.
After subduing security guards attempting to come to Christine's rescue with a gun that seems to blast out waves of high energy, the Observer speeds off in a getaway car—with Christine. It takes no time for Agent Olivia Dunham and the Fringe team to discover who is behind the crime, since it was committed in front of bystanders. The bigger question is, why?
Though stumped, Dunham isn't completely clueless. The Observer left a notebook full of symbolic code at the scene. There is one lead in cracking the code, however, and that's because it's already being studied. As usual, all roads seem to lead the Fringe team to the same place: Massive Dynamic. The company's researcher admits he's made no progress with the code, but has found evidence that's a little more interesting. Colonial silversmith and famed midnight rider Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre reveals a mysterious figure in the background: an Observer. The same goes for the execution of Marie Antoinette and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Paintings of these famous scenes of history unveil the presence of the Observers and their ability to view time outside of just a linear entity as humans see it.
Back in the lab, Walter's right-hand gal Astrid tries to decipher the code using a computer program, but there is not one symbol that repeats. And, as Astrid notes, "Without repeated symbols, language is not possible." So how do we decipher unknown codes or languages?
Cracking codes is all about taking advantage of information we already have, says etymologist Rex Curry. "The Rosetta Stone involved an ancient code and helped translate Egyptian hieroglyphic writing because it contained carved text made up of three translations of a single passage: two in Egyptian language scripts—hieroglyphic and Demotic—and one in Greek," he says. "It provided a window into the mind of Egyptian hieroglyphic writers via comparison to writers of the other language scripts."
The Egyptians weren't the only ones to use secret codes to transmitting messages. Mary, Queen of Scots, used a cryptography code system to communicate with her followers in her plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Cryptography is used not to hide communication between two parties, but to conceal its meaning. In order to do this, code writers must send their memo through an encryption algorithm, a coding device that can only be deciphered properly with the use of its key.
But according to Curry, codes have only just hit their stride due to the millions of codes used in electronic banking and shopping. "Coding is a worldwide tool used millions of times daily by people via computers and encryption for online transactions," he says. "It's so common and easy that people don't even think about it. They wouldn't be able to break their own coding if they tried."
So in this instance, Fringe got its facts right: language does require repetition, and cracking complex codes require some sort of key that compares them to another language. For now, it seems that Astrid and her Fringe compatriots are out of luck when it comes to unlocking the mysteries inside The Observer's notebook.