Advent Calendar of Science Stories 10: Anagrams. Oy.

The final step of the scientific process is to share your results with others, and that's the step where things are most prone to breaking down. Countless great discoveries have been delayed or temporarily lost because the people who made them were more concerned with protecting "their" secrets than with sharing new knowledge with the world. A classic example of this, that I first heard from Michael Nielsen, is Robert Hooke in 1676 first reporting the relationship for elastic forces as "ceiiinossssttuv," which unscrambles to "ut tensio, sic vis," indicating that the force is proportional to the stretch.

While it might be tempting to just note this down as supporting the "Evil Robert Hooke" theory (in)famously presented in Cosmos, it actually wasn't exceptionally dickish for Hooke to do this. The use of cryptic clues was fairly common in the early days of institutional science, as the current norms hadn't really been set. Distributing cryptic hints was a way to establish priority while keeping the details of your discovery away from your competitors.

My favorite anagram story comes from astronomy, a generation or two before Hooke, involving Galileo and Kepler. Galileo was, as Thony C. will be happy to tell you, a master of self-promotion, and made use of anagrams when he started discovering stuff with his telescope. These were distributed to other notable thinkers around Europe, among them Johannes Kepler, who liked puzzles and worked at unscrambling Galileo's notes to reveal the discoveries.

Unfortunately, neither of them was especially good with anagrams. Galileo's first cryptic report was in 1610, just a string of letters: "smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras." Kepler worked furiously on this, and came up with "Salve umbistineum geminatum Martia proles," usually rendered as "Hail, double-knob children of Mars." This is kind of dubious as a Latin unscrambling of Galileo's gibberish, but it fit one of Kepler's pet ideas, namely that Mars should have two moons, so that Earth (one Moon) then Mars (two) then Jupiter (Galileo had just discovered four moons there) made a geometric progression. Kepler was bit into numerology, and loved this idea.

Unfortunately, the correct solution was "Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi" or "I have observed the highest planet to be three-bodied." The "highest planet" is Saturn, then the most distant one known, and Galileo had seen the rings, but they were unresolved by his telescope, and thus looked like two giant moons, one to either side.

Galileo's next attempt came in 1611, and this time he decided to get cute and make words for his anagram: "Haec immatura a me iam frustra leguntur oy." Unfortunately, he wasn't all that good at this, and had two letters left over, thus the "oy." This time, Kepler came up with "Macula rufa in Jove est gyratur mathem..." which is pretty terrible, as it breaks off in the middle of a word. This one says that there's a red spot on Jupiter that rotates mathem[atically]. To be fair, Kepler did recognize that this was sub-optimal, and sent a letter to Galileo begging for the correct answer.

The correct answer turned out to be "Cynthiae figuras aemulatur mater amorum" or "The mother of love emulates the figures of Cynthia." This sounds even more cryptic to modern ears, but "Cynthia" as a poetic reference for the Moon was probably a little more widely known in 1611. The "mother of love" is Venus, so this is really an announcement of Galileo's observation of the phases of Venus. This is a crucial bit of evidence for the heliocentric model of the solar system, and thus a very big bit of news.

(Bad Latin, colorful details, and Galileo-Kepler image above from these pages.)

I first heard these stories in a talk by Dava Sobel back in 2008. She told both of these stories, and drily added "This probably explains why Galileo and Kepler didn't correspond more often." The really amazing thing about this is that both of Kepler's terrible attempts at solving Galileo's anagrams turn out to be correct: Jupiter really does have a Red Spot, though it wasn't observed until fifty years after this exchange, and Mars really does have two moons, though finding those took another 265 years. So Kepler was accidentally brilliant.

Happily, the practice of disguising results in this manner fell out of favor, and scientists took to publishing their results much more openly. This helped enable the great explosion of scientific discoveries through the 18th and 19th century, and on up to the present day as, you no longer need to be a master puzzler to figure out what the hell your colleagues are talking about. (Though these days there are more than a few bogus journals who would be happy to publish Latin cryptograms submitted by cartoon characters.)

So, as our seasonal countdown continues its march to Newton's birthday, it's useful reflect on some of the times when the process broke down a bit. Nothing else demonstrates the importance of clear communication quite as well as the slapstick that results when brilliant people are Doing It Wrong.


(Part of a series promoting Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.)

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Enjoyed every bit of your article.Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic.

By wellsjimmy (not verified) on 02 Jan 2015 #permalink