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Lucas Mason-Brown has always had an interest in puzzles and mathematics.
So it stands to reason the Brown University senior math major would be interested in joining a team of undergraduate students as they attempted to solve a centuries-old Rhode Island mystery.
Mason-Brown is from Belmont, Mass. His father, Roger Brown Jr., grew up in Gainesville and graduated from Gainesville High School in 1974. The family returns to Gainesville several times a year to visit Mason-Brown’s grandparents, Carolyn and Roger Brown Sr.
The mystery involved a 17th century book, "An Essay Towards the Reconciling of Differences Among Christians," housed at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Scribbled in the margins of the book are cryptic symbols that went undeciphered for centuries.
When the book was donated to the library in the 1800s, it included a handwritten note explaining that the symbols in it were written by Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder. Williams (1603-1683) is perhaps best remembered as the first to argue for the separation of church and state.
Since the book first arrived,
scholars have tried to translate the symbols, with little success. In the last few years, scholars at the library again began working to decipher the meaning of the notes in the book. The project gained momentum after the school opened up the challenge to undergraduate students.
Mason-Brown jumped on the opportunity.
"I had a theoretical interest in codes and this seemed like a unique opportunity to apply my skills to a real-world problem of practical significance," Mason-Brown said.
Last winter break, Mason-Brown made copies of the book’s pages. He spent his entire break trying to decipher the meaning behind the symbols. For several hours each day, he pored over the symbols, trying to match keys, common words, sounds or letters to the frequency of the symbols.
After hearing about the project, Roger Brown Jr. admits he had some concerns for his son.
"When he first told me about it I was a little worried," Roger Brown Jr. said. "When something hasn’t been cracked for 350 years, your first reaction is maybe there’s some reason for that. Maybe it’s not just hard to do."
He worried the problem might not have a solution. What if the code couldn’t be cracked at all?
"In this case, it wasn’t clear that you could get a solution," Roger Brown Jr. said. "So I was a little worried he would spend his entire semester working on it and get nowhere and be frustrated. ... But on the other hand I thought, ‘Wow. If you do this and this is real ... you could actually make a small contribution to the knowledge base of the world.’"
There were moments when Mason-Brown also wondered if his efforts were in vain.
"Going into it, I had no idea if I was going to be able to do it," he said. "But I just decided to I’d give it my all and see what happens."
Mason-Brown discovered that Williams once had been a court stenographer. Once he compared the symbols to other stenographic shorthand of the time, the meanings behind the symbols began to be revealed.
The challenge was made more difficult after realizing Williams had a more personalized version of shorthand in which he often would substitute his own symbols.
Roger Brown Jr. recalled a phone call he received early one morning as his son was working on the code.
"He called me at 2 o’clock in the morning one weekday totally excited and not realizing it was 2 o’clock," Roger Brown Jr. said laughing. "He told me he thought he’d cracked it and that he had figured out what one of the keys was."
Mason-Brown said he’d had a breakthrough. He explained that the shorthand symbols were broken down into clusters.
"Each cluster might communicate several letters or words or a collection of words," Mason-Brown said. "Each cluster takes a lot of time and sensitivity to context. It’s not a straight one-to-one correspondence. There’s a lot of idiosyncrasy involved."
Overall, the actual cracking of the mysterious code took about a month. The real work was translating the messages.
For the next 10 months, Mason-Brown and other students working on the project matched the symbols and their meanings. The notes were divided into three sections. Two of the sections that have been completely translated contained notes on essays Williams read.
"Part of me was hoping that this would be some sort of treasure map or something ridiculous like that," Mason-Brown admits. "Then, of course, the first two sections I translated were not that interesting. They were Roger Williams’ notes on pre-existing texts. But the middle section is interesting."
Though that middle portion may not be as glamorous as a treasure map, Mason-Brown said it is likely Williams’ last written work of theology. The translated notes discuss the topic of infant baptism.
"Historically, it’s not uninteresting," Mason-Brown said. "But the translation is not yet complete. We still have about 10 pages left to translate so we’ll see, but so far it’s pretty interesting."
Mason-Brown said the entire project has been interesting to work on. He’s enjoyed working with students and professors outside of the mathematics discipline, something he otherwise might not have had the chance to do.
Though he has received a lot of media attention since cracking the mysterious code, he said he never expected it. He’s just glad to have helped make a contribution to history.
Mason-Brown will graduate from Brown University in the spring of this year. He intends to continue to study math at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
His family couldn’t be more proud of Mason-Brown’s accomplishments.
Carolyn Brown said her grandson has always been a "very different child" with a very real curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
"Not many people in life get to have that moment of discovery where they’re the first person to be at the North Pole, the first to be on the moon or, in this case, the first person to figure out what this stuff said," Roger Brown Jr. said.