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King Ferdinand’s Code Is Broken

King Ferdinand II of Spain is known—along with his wife Queen Isabella—as a sponsor of Christopher Columbus who is credited with the late-fifteenth-century discovery of America. Less widely known is that Ferdinand used a secret code to communicate with his general Fernandez de Córdoba. The code has remained unbroken for almost 500 years, but now, has finally been cracked.

The so-called “Great Captain Code” used 88 different symbols and 237 “combined letters.” The Spanish National Intelligence Center applied artificial intelligence and a computer program to correspondence between the king and his general to yield the solution.

Another mystery regarding a lost ancient map of the world, said to be in the possession of Columbus, is still unsolved, but there have been some serious students of history, including U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who suspected that the explorer was guided by that secret map when he came upon the ‘new world.’


Could Computers Predict the Future?

Today, computer algorithms seem to play the role once reserved for ancient prophets. The cultural priesthood takes cataclysmic climate change, for instance, projected by some computer models, very seriously. However, since we have long-since abandoned the old school ‘prophecies of doom’ taken seriously by our ancestors, in favor of a more ‘scientific’ approach, the proper scientific question now would seem to be: how much faith should be placed in the new predictive algorithms.

According to on-line columnist Uri Gal, writing for the science website, predictive algorithms are no better at forecasting the future than crystal balls. Extrapolating from data about the past is valid only when things continue as they were, and there has been no fundamental change in the process. Moreover, even as the global demand for ‘predictive analytics’ from businesses seeking competitive advantage continues to grow, there remain fatal flaws in such strategies—not the least of which is the tendency on the part of advocates for particular belief systems to create self-fulfilling prophecies.

To paraphrase the great seer Yogi Berra: Predicting is hard, especially about the future…


Ancient Supernova Witnessed and Recorded?

In 1572, a great supernova in the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye, caused a public sensation and provided the great Danish-Czech astronomer Tycho Brahe with an opportunity to introduce his controversial new theory that stars existed far beyond the distance to the moon.

Almost 7,000 years ago primitive hunters in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir witnessed the explosion of a distant star and memorialized their impressions in a petroglyph. That, at least, is the story now told in the Indian Journal of the History of Science to explain an ancient carving, which appears to depict twin suns, in a tableau with two hunters and a stag. For years, archaeologists thought they were looking at two suns, but a team of scientists in India and Germany reasoned that there cannot be two suns, so something else must be going on. By tracking known supernova events in astronomical records, the researchers settled on an event known as Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4600 BC near the Orion constellation, just above the Taurus (the bull) constellation.

If the astronomers have it right, this would be the earliest eyewitness account of a supernova, at least as officially recognized. Such views, however, seem to disregard much more ancient stellar lore. A representation, for example, on the cave wall in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux, France, which has been dated to at least 17,000 years ago, clearly depicts the Pleiades.