For centuries, the Voynich manuscript has confounded scholars and laymen alike. Written in the early 15th century, the book consists of roughly 240 pages filled with lavish illustrations of botanical life, cosmological systems and biological figures all annotated in an unidentifiable language. Housed in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the manuscript draws in hundreds of new readers every year, all intent on penetrating its sphinxlike exterior and revealing the nature of the mysteries contained within. Thus far, nobody has been able to decode the book in a way that fully satisfies its staunch audience. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been proposed solutions.
Just this year, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, Stephen Bax, claimed to have decoded fourteen of the manuscript’s characters. Bax’s strategy was to “identify […] proper names in the text.” Cross-referencing the manuscript’s wealth of illustrations with ancient Arabic books on herbs, Bax says that he was able to find several words, such as coriander, hellebore and juniper. Critics, of course, called hogwash, but Bax’s dedication to the manuscript serves to illustrate the natural curiosity of all human beings. Codes, puzzles, riddles and enigmas have entertained and perplexed us for centuries and the ability to think laterally — to make logical and intuitive leaps — is one of our species’ defining characteristics.
It is, therefore, no great surprise that an unsolved riddle is a thorn in our side. As humans, we understand that every question provides the fundamental promise of an answer, that every effect is preceded by a rational cause. The absence of an answer, then, is in conflict with — some might say anathema to — our need for a coherent chain of reason.
Here, we examine these broken chains. We turn our eyes toward some of history’s unanswered questions. In this list, we’ve compiled five ciphers that have steadfastly resisted all decryption attempts.
Every year on January 5, the Cicada emerges. The group — officially calling themselves “Cicada 3301” — first appeared in 2012 on 4chan’s /x/ board. Posting a simple JPEG file, the anonymous poster hinted that there was a “message hidden in this image.” Cynical users suspected it was just another Hollywood studio promoting their project with an ARG. More jaded users insisted it was a recruitment scheme run by a diabolical government agency.
The initial puzzle was solved in short order and led seekers to a cryptic subforum on Reddit created by the user “CageThrottleUs.” Cicada’s game, it seemed, was not over. The ciphers soon spiraled into near-obscurity. Images contained strings of text that pointed to websites that contained images that revealed real-world coordinates. Internet sleuths eagerly followed each clue deeper into the rabbit hole.
The first puzzle ran for nearly a month. Afterwards, Cicada vanished. Some users claimed to have followed Cicada’s clues to the end. Others claimed to have been contacted by the shadowy cabal and extended an invitation to join the group who stated that their, “primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate.” Regardless, the Cicada has returned every year — on the same day — with a new series of esoteric challenges.
Ricky McCormick’s Notes
Ricky McCormick dropped out of high school and wandered. Living an itinerant lifestyle, he had four children, was unmarried, and did an 11-month stint in prison for statutory rape. A stranger found his decomposing body in a Missouri cornfield fifteen miles from his home.
After living such a troubled life, it would be easy to write McCormick off as another drifter whose life came to an abrupt end as a result of poor decisions. However, McCormick’s death was never officially ruled a homicide, and there is the matter of the coded messages found in his pants pockets. The messages — written on two pages — consist of bizarrely aligned rows of letters which are intermittently contained within parentheses.
Complicating the notes’ origins, McCormick’s family members insist that the codes must be fake because “[t]he only thing he could write was his name.” After failing to decrypt the notes, Dan Olson, the chief of the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit called for public assistance saying, “Breaking the code could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide.”
The Zodiac 340
In a conversation about ciphers, it’s inevitable that the Zodiac will come up. Responsible for a string of murders across northern California in the 1960s and 1970s, the Zodiac took a sadistic glee in taunting the police. Between 1969 and 1974, the Zodiac mailed a number of puzzling ciphers to newspaper editors in the San Francisco area.
The first, dubbed “the 408,” was quickly solved by two schoolteachers. When decoded, the cipher spoke of the Zodiac’s motivations and bragged that, “TO KILL SOMETHING GIVES ME THE MOST THRILLING EXPERENCE IT IS EVEN BETTER THAN GETTING YOUR ROCKS OFF WITH A GIRL.”
Infuriated that his code had been cracked so easily, the Zodiac redoubled his efforts. Future ciphers were shorter, contained more symbols and used different encoding methods. The culmination of his evolution, called “the 340,” is a cipher that has avoided translation by professional and amateur cryptologists alike for 45 years. Containing 340 characters and 63 different symbols, the cipher has attracted a fair amount of speculation — and supposed solutions — over the years, however, no proposed translation has gained traction with the FBI who maintain that they, “haven’t seen any recent solutions or ideas that have generated a second look as of yet.”
Carrier Pigeon Cipher
In 2012, a dead pigeon was found in the chimney of a home of David Martin, a resident of the United Kingdom. While not exactly front page news, the discovery captured the public’s attention, largely because of what Martin discovered attached to the pigeon.
Looped around the pigeon’s leg was a small red canister. The canister belonged to the National Pigeon Service, an organization used by the Royal Air Force during World War II to deliver coded messages via “war pigeons.” Inside the canister was a cipher addressed to “XO2” and signed by “W Stot Sjt.” The code itself, comprised of 27 blocks of five letters, has resisted cracking by experts at the Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ).
With World War II codebreakers retired and the era’s decoding books lost, GCHQ have sought the help of anyone familiar with the use of military signals during the war, however no positive decryptions have yet been provided.
The Taman Shud Case
One of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries, the Taman Shud case — also called the Somerton Man — concerns the body of an unidentified man found on Somerton beach in South Australia. Among the wealth of idiosyncrasies inherent to the case — including the use of an unknown poison — was a torn scrap of paper found in the victim’s pocket.
The paper, which read only “Tamam Shud,” was discovered to have originated from a rare edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Coincidentally, a man contacted police to inform them that he had discovered a copy of the book — missing the “Tamam Shud” page — in the back seat of his car a week before the body was found.
At the location of the removed page a handwritten cipher had been inserted. With only 50 symbols, it is difficult — even impossible — to discern a pattern in the code. This has not discouraged would-be sleuths from trying their hand at the Taman Shud cipher. Theorists hypothesize everything from the Somerton Man’s involvement in a Cold War spy ring to his undying love for a nurse in Sydney.
Under the weight of skepticism, however, theories about the Taman Shud case crumble and over 65 years later we are no closer to identifying the mysterious man from Somerton beach.