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Fermilab cryptogramI just heard about this mysterious letter Fermilab received sometime last year via Cosmic Variance. Its author remains unknown although the two paragraphs of chicken-scratch have been decoded.

My mom’s a big fan of the Cryptoquip puzzle in the daily paper, which consists of a famous quotation encrypted with simple letter substitution. They give you one letter for free (e.g., X equals F) and you have to run with that and your knowledge of the English language to decipher the rest. My curiosity got the better of me and I looked up the solution without even trying it myself, but I printed the letter for her. She actually came pretty close to solving it. Unfortunately there’s an error (or is it?) in the first paragraph that makes solving it with brute force cryptoquip style difficult. It turns out to be much easier, as these things often do, if you just make a clever choice in your decryption scheme, which relies on things like having conveniently ordered the possible permutations correctly.

Because I had nothing else to do this weekend, I hacked together a simple program to encode and decode the two codes used in the Fermilab letter. It can be found here. An example of its output:

||| ||| | || ||| || ||| ||| ||| ||| || ||| | ||| ||| || ||| ||| || ||| | || ||| || ||| ||| ||| ||| || | | | ||| ||| ||| | | | || ||| | ||| ||| | || ||| ||| ||| | ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| || ||| || ||| || || | ||| ||| | | || | ||| || ||| ||| ||| | ||| ||| ||| ||| ||| | || | || ||| ||| | || ||| ||| ||| || ||| ||| | ||| ||| || | | ||| || || | ||| ||| ||| || | || | || ||| || | ||| | | ||| ||| | | ||| ||| ||| ||| || || ||| ||| | || | | ||| | || ||| ||| ||| ||| | ||| ||| ||| | | | ||| | | ||| ||| | || ||| | | ||| ||| ||| || ||| || ||| || || | ||| ||| || ||| | ||| ||| ||| | | || | || ||| | ||| ||| || ||| | ||| | || ||| ||| ||| || ||| || | || ||| | || |||

Go ahead and try to decode it. Extra points if you don’t use the cheat.

So now I’ve decided that trying to break codes is fun. I remember back in elementary school inventing an alphabet so I could write messages only me or a couple of my friends could read, which was really just designing a difficult to read font. I’m tempted now to try making up new encryption schemes for fun and challenge people to solve them. I’m sure it’s been done before, but not by me!

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