Imagine the answers to your biggest questions being hidden behind a simple string of text that you can’t decipher. This is the frustration that cryptographers face on a daily basis. While modern technology has assisted in the decrypting of several famous secret codes (such as the Zodiac Killer’s final cipher) some still seem impossible to crack. Here are three secret codes that have cryptographers stumped.
The Voynich Manuscript
Kicking off our list is the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century codex dubbed by many scholars as “the most mysterious book in the world.” Its name derives from Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who in 1912 purchased it from the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome. The book contains roughly 240 pages of text written in an unknown and unreadable language. Interspersed are bizarre illustrations of astrological symbols, plants that do not exist in the real world, and nude figures bathing in a green liquid.
The Voynich Manuscript’s authorship is unknown, though some speculate that it was created by a distinguished Renaissance artist. This is because a lab analysis of the book indicated that rare, high-quality paints were used to produce its illustrations. Regarding the codex’s text, experts believe that it is written in a real language that was either lost to time or developed for the manuscript itself.
Could the Voynich Manuscript be the remnant of a Middle Age cult that spoke its own language? It’s possible, yes, especially considering the book’s strange ritualistic images. It could also be a guide to 15th century pharmacology and herbal healing (though one must then wonder why it was written in an unreadable language). Or it could be an elaborate joke, the work of what we would today consider a troll.
No matter its purpose, the Voynich Manuscript has fascinated scholars for over a century. Recently, scientists at the University of Adelaide applied machine learning techniques to decipher the book’s text. But, as one might guess, results were inconclusive. If you’d like to take a crack at solving the Voynich Manuscript yourself, here’s a link to a PDF version.
The Somerton Man
On December 1, 1948, a man’s dead body was found on the shore of Somerton Park Beach in Adelaide, Australia. He bore no signs of injury or assault. Nothing was found on him that could give police so much as a hint to his identity.
It wasn’t until months later that a breakthrough clue was discovered. In a hidden pocket of the man’s trousers was a small, tightly rolled-up piece of paper. Typed on it were the words tamám shud, a Persian phrase that translates to, “It is finished.” Police deduced that the paper was torn from a book of poetry called The Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Things only got stranger when a copy of The Rubáiyát was found on the shore of the Somerton Park Beach. Sure enough, this copy had part of a page torn from it: a part of a page that read tamám shud. This was the very book that the paper in the Somerton Man’s trousers had come from.
The Jessica Thomson Connection
So far, this story may seem like a simple murder mystery. But here’s where the secret codes come in. Handwritten on the back of this copy of The Rubáiyát was a strange code (shown below), as well as the phone number of a local nurse named Jessica Thomson. Thomson insisted that she knew nothing of the Somerton man and refused to cooperate with police. As for the code, to this day it has never been cracked.
An autopsy proved that the Somerton Man was most likely was poisoned, a cause of death that signals murder. Investigators believe that deciphering the code written in The Rubáiyát could prove the identity of his killer. To make this case even more frustrating, Jessica Thomson died in 2007. And in 2013, her daughter Katie claimed that her mother had told her that she knew the identity of the Somerton Man. However, she also told her daughter that she would take the secret to her grave.
Our final mystery takes us to Reddit. If you’re unfamiliar with Reddit, it is a website that is made up of a massive collection of user-created forums, called subreddits. It has been the home to many well-known (and controversial) online communities.
In 2011, a Reddit user with the screen name A858DE45F5609BC9 began posting in a newly created subreddit of the same name. (Note: for the sake of simplicity, said user and subreddit will be referred to as A858 throughout the rest of this article.) These daily posts featured long strings of seemingly random letter and number combinations.
The Infamous AMA
It took about a year before the cryptic messages were brought to the attention of the greater internet. Before long, hordes of computer scientists, cryptographers, and people with way too much time on their hands made it their mission to solve the mystery of r/A858. Who was writing these lengthy sequences of letters and numbers every day? And more importantly, for what reason?
Years of tireless investigation eventually culminated in an AMA with the person(s) behind A858. When asked about the purpose of the posts, they replied, “We cannot disclose the purpose. A858 will end when the purpose is disclosed or discovered.”
We don’t know for sure whether or not anyone ever did discover the purpose of A858. But the project has since ended. In 2016, a now-deleted user with the screen name TeamWMod posted in r/solvinga858: “The A858 project has ended… We apologize that the information available to the public is not sufficient to solve all outstanding puzzles. Some information was missed, and other remains undiscovered/misunderstood. But because of the missed information any further efforts on solving a858 will be in vain.” Indeed, A858’s posting ceased following this message.
This final goodbye seems to indicate that the mystery of A858 was never possible to solve in the first place. But even with such discouragement, you can count on the internet to still be working on it to this day.
Think you can take a stab at cracking these secret codes? Let us know in the comments!