Stories tagged code

Nov
01
2011

I'm both a linguist by training and a puzzle enthusiast by inclination, so this story in the New York Times caught my eye. Um, so to speak. The Copiale cipher is an 18th century docment found in Germany, written with a set of symbols that include Roman characters (the ordinary letters that are used to write many European languages, including English), and other symbols that included Greek letters and abstract designs. The text has now been shown to describe an initiation ceremony for a secret society centered around eyes. Eye: The Copiale cipher talks about eyes, but the eye also symbolizes observation and discovery.  See what I did there?
Eye: The Copiale cipher talks about eyes, but the eye also symbolizes observation and discovery. See what I did there?Courtesy Thomas Tolkien

The story about the codebreaking itself is fascinating and worth a read. The cipher was cracked by a team of linguists and computer scientists with the help of software that's been developed for machine translation, which is the automatic translation of a text from one language to another, for example Russian to Japanese. Machine translation, and the problems that it presents, is fascinating in itself. But what really got me thinking as I read the researchers' paper
is the parallels between the process of deciphering this unknown document and the procedure that scientists everywhere go through in making discoveries about the natural world.

The scientific method is a series of steps intended to lead to explanations of previously unknown phenomena. Generally, the method consists of four parts:

1. Noticing something;
2. Making a hypothesis, or educated guess, that explains what you notice;
3. Predicting what will happen if you test your educated guess; and
4. Testing the guess to see if you're right.

If your guess was right, you can make more predictions and do more experiments. If you're wrong, you can learn from that to make a new guess, and then continue with the process. Sometimes being wrong is the most valuable part of the process, because knowing what *isn't* happening can help you discover what *is*.

The researchers working on the Copiale cipher made a lot of wrong guesses at first. For example, they predicted that the Roman letters held the information and the others were filler, when the opposite was true. Still, they might never have found meaning in the other symbols if they hadn't started with a reasonable, though ultimately wrong, hypothesis.

In a way, every scientist is a codebreaker. Information about the natural world, about biology, astronomy, sociology, or any other field of science is about finding the information hidden deep within the phenomena that we observe as we look at the things around us. To decipher it, all we need is the desire to know what's behind the code, and the patience to keep trying until we figure it out.

Fortran punch card: I remember punching out code on hundreds of these cards.
Fortran punch card: I remember punching out code on hundreds of these cards.Courtesy Arnold Reinhold
Oct 15, 1956, John W. Backus published a manual explaining a new way to program computers.

“John Backus and his Fortran project members almost single-handedly invented the ideas of both programming languages and (optimizing) compilers as we know them today." Wired

Instead of compiling complex machine code which tooks weeks, Fortran code could be written in hours and was much easier.
I was even able to learn Fortran back in the late 60's. It even satisfied my foreign language requirement!