How One Man Solved a "Baroque" Mystery

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In 2003, Neal Stephenson's book Quicksilver hit the stands. It was the first in a series called The Baroque Cycle, featuring (among many other things) the exploits of alchemists and mathematicians. But before Quicksilver was released, a promotional website appeared, featuring a mysterious opening page followed by some basic information -- an author bio, some sales information, and an excerpt of the upcoming novel. But what of that opening page? It was apparently an encoded message in graphical form, presented for fans to solve. It looked like this:

Readers around the world rallied to crack the code, but Todd Garrison ultimately solved it. Garrison wrote an account of the decipherment, which makes for really interesting reading. With minimal knowledge of cryptology (apparently mainly from Stephenson's own novel Cryptonomicon), Garrison ran through a series of hypotheses related to encryption, ciphers, and so on. After many false starts, he discovered that the message wasn't "encrypted" at all -- it was just in a very, very obscure language. Still, deciphering that language was an immense task that involved finding a book more than 300 years old and reverse-engineering the language to figure out English words from the promotional website. Anyway, without giving anything more away, here's a selection from Garrison's account:

The key to deciphering the message seemed to be predicated on finding a real-life example of this strange writing. Once that happened, the pieces would fall into place, and the mystery would be solved. But how to go about it? The problem--a rather immense one, in fact--meant taking something that was graphic in nature and trying to conduct research using text-based tools. I had in front of me an entire page of these squiggly lines and no real way to come up with decent keywords to use in a search engine. How does one ask, for example, "What can you tell me about this symbol, comprised of a horizontal line with two crooked arms attached to it, bisected by a funny S-shaped line with a tiny circle at its base?" It wasn't gonna work. First I was going to have to figure out who had created this monster.

The only thing I could think of was to search for examples of ancient writing and cross-reference the results with names like Newton, Liebniz, Hooke, et al. As I had feared, nothing seemed to turn up graphically; plenty of information was available in text form, but nothing seemed to be visually helpful, leaving me with a big fat goose egg. While it was interesting to read about, I had no idea whether I was on the right track or not. The net result meant having to pore over copious amounts of material in hopes that eventually something would show me the way.

Read the rest for a great bit of puzzle-solving!

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August 21, 2008 - 12:27pm
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