Picture of the Day: An 18th-Century Manuscript, Decoded

copiale.jpg


This is the first page of the Copiale manuscript, a 105-page text from the 18th century found in eastern Berlin after the Cold War. Since its discovery, its meaning had remained a mystery. Now, a team of linguists and computer scientists from the University of Southern California and Uppsala University in Sweden say that using statistical techniques they have been able to decode the text. The scientists looked for a frequently recurring two-character combination that would likely be the code's equivalent of the German combination "ch." A major turning point in their work was when they realized that certain Roman characters stood not for sounds but spaces, used in the text to throw off code-breakers. Their translation reveals that the text is from a secret society that was fascinated with eye surgery and ophthalmology.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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