Researchers Crack Secret Society's 18th Century Code, Target World's Most Mysterious Book

They're going to need a bigger secret decoder ring.

A team of researchers that made headlines for decoding a secret society's 18th century manuscript is working to reveal the secret behind an even more mysterious book -- one that the world has yet to decode.

Found in a chest of books outside Rome by a dealer in antique books, the Voynich manuscript has remained one of history’s biggest mysteries: Its aging parchment is coated in alien characters and has for centuries mystified scientists. And Kevin Knight, a computer scientist with USC's Viterbi School of Engineering who recently helped crack the Copiale Cipher, believes the same techniques could be used to tackle literature’s great mystery manuscript.

“We have decipherment algorithms, but we also have tools that just look for patterns,” Knight told in an interview. “Those pattern-finders helped us find similar sets of letters in Copiale, and they have already started helping us find patterns in the Voynich manuscript.”

The Copiale Cipher -- a mysterious cryptogram bound in gold and green brocade paper -- is a 250-year-old coded document. By decrypting it, Knight and his colleagues uncovered the inner workings of an 18th-century secret society.

The codebreaking team began without knowing the language of the encrypted document. They had a hunch about the Roman and Greek characters distributed throughout the manuscript, however, so they isolated these from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the true code.

After trying 80 languages, the team realized the characters were actually meant to throw them off, deliberately planted to misread readers. With the aid of statistics and algorithms such as expected word frequency, the first meaningful phrases began to emerge: “Ceremonies of Initiation,” followed by “Secret Section.”

Knight is now targeting other coded messages, including ciphers the Zodiac Killer sent to the police in the 60s and 70s, the C.I.A.’s “Kryptos” sculpture, as well as the infamous Voynich manuscript

According to Knight, the process has profound implications for unlocking history's mysteries.

"Secret societies have had a role in revolutions ... and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered," Knight said. "This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies."

Currently owned by Yale, the Voynich manuscript was discovered in the Villa Mondragone near Rome in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich while sifting through a chest of books offered for sale by the Society of Jesus. Voynich dedicated the remainder of his life to unveiling the mystery of the book's origin and deciphering its meanings. He died 18 years later, without having wrestled any its secrets from the book.

The Voynich manuscript's unintelligible writings and strange illustrations have defied every attempt at understanding their meaning.

"Is it a code, a cipher of some kind?" asked Greg Hodgins, a physicist with the University of Arizona. "People are doing statistical analysis of letter use and word use -- the tools that have been used for code breaking. But they still haven't figured it out," Hodgins said.

Knight and his team of Swedish and American researchers are wary of the monumental task ahead. "When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite," Knight said. “Not knowing the system is the biggest challenge -- not knowing who wrote it, why they wrote it, and what language they spoke.”

Whatever it is, Knight hopes his findings can shed new light on history:

"Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered,” Knight said. "This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies.”

But the secrets of the Voynich manuscript may yet remain a mystery. Despite their recent successes, Knight admits that the team has “raised more questions than we’ve answered.”