By Jeremy Manier
Chicago Tribune reporter
July 10, 2008
The enigma began last year when a plain envelope with no return address
arrived at the world-famous physics laboratory outside Chicago,
addressed simply to "Fermilab."
Inside was a single sheet marked by pen with a bizarre series of hash
marks, numbers and alien-looking symbols.
No one at the lab could make sense of the letter. Was it a joke? A
threat? A hint at some exotic new theory?
Whatever the meaning, something about the inscription's order and
symmetry touched Judy Jackson, the first person to examine the letter.
"It was beautiful, kind of like abstract art," said Jackson, Fermi
National Accelerator Laboratory's director of public affairs.
In hopes of cracking the code, Jackson's colleagues posted the letter in
May on their Internet blog .
Hundreds of people from around the world responded and several of them
quickly deciphered part of the hidden message, discovering to their
surprise that it named an 86-year-old retired physicist from Princeton
University who designed some of Fermilab's first experimental tools.
But one section of the cipher continues to resist any solution, and no
one knows the sender's identity - though many suspect the author was a
The keys to the mystery have taken code-breakers on a romp that
encompasses Fermi's earliest days in the 1960s, the cryptic jargon of
computer programming and high-energy physics, and the power of
"crowdsourcing," or unleashing a problem on the collective intelligence
of an Internet community.
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