Sunday, May 17, 2009

Talk like an Egyptian

The real reason I got The science of secrets was to learn more about codebreaking at Betchley Park during WWII. Which got pretty short shrift. Much of the focus was on modern developments. Which frankly, made me go a bit squiggle eyed with all that maths and quantum physics. Singh's book was written in 2000. His chapter on the philosophical and ethical aspects of cryptography in the internet age is now looking a little dated and over-simplified, though it's a bit spooky to read of ''new developments' such as ecommerce and email (written here e-mail: you know it's early days for a term when it still has its hyphen).

What the book did include, that was super exciting in a romantic I-want-that-to-be-my-job, Indiana Jones kind of way, and was kind of unexpected in a book of this sort - a chapter on deciphering the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian hieroglyphics. When I was young I had lots of books about the ancient world. Most of it forgotten. (Seven wonders of the ancient world? I think I can name two.) And when it comes to hieroglyphs, somehow I seemed to have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely. I had the idea that each little picture represented a word (logograms). Not so. Or not very often. Instead, they represent phonetic sounds. I wasn't alone in my mistake. A leading scholar of the 17th century translated the heiroglyphics for the name of pharaoh Apries as 'the benefits of the divine Osiris are to be procured by means of sacred ceremonies and of the chain of the Genii, in order that the benefits of the Nile may by obtained'. Snappy.

What I love about heiroglyphics is that they can be read left to right, right to left or top to bottom. It all depends which way the figures are facing. To make things trickier, it appears they also left out vowel sounds. And the order of the figures could be rearranged if it made them more aesthetically pleasing. Which all sounds a bit hard. And then of course, they encrypted some of them. Usually, this wasn't intended to hide secrets but would appear on the tombs of pharaohs, cryptic puzzles to entice the passerby to linger at the tomb rather than move on.

Apparently there are still a good many languages left to decipher. So there is hope for a career change yet. The book by Singh includes in its list of cryptographic puzzles yet to be solved, the translation of messages from outer space! In the 19th century a German mathematician suggested planting avenues of trees in the barren plains of Siberia to form a giant right angled triangle. This is intended to let aliens know we are intelligent enough to appreciate the 'wonders of geometry'. But surely the best idea is that of Viennese astronomer Josef Johann von Littrow. He suggested digging canals to form a geographical shape 15km in length, and at night he wanted to fill them with kerosene and set them alight.

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