Fermilab’s Strange Letter – Interlude

Hi Slashdot! You guys can be proud to be the first stress test of my new host – and they appear to have passed with flying colours (yes, flying Canadian spelled with a u colours).

That being said, progress on the Fermilab letter hasn’t been as good. I’ve tried an absolutely ridiculous number of things, and I get little. So I thought I’d try to present the letter in a more usable form along with the progress so far and any unresolved questions.

For your reference, my cleaned up data can be found in this CSV file. I figured if Slashdot linked to it, I better provide something multiplatform. Please inform me if you find any errors.

Also, please don’t phone/email/stalk Frank Shoemaker! The poor guy is retired after a distinguished career, has been contacted far too many times about this, and say he has no involvement. Pierre Piroue has also been contacted, and has claimed no knowledge of this whatsoever.

If anyone has talked to CF please email me (sorry for being vague, privacy issues).

Ternary Paragraph

Top Grid View

Here’s the first ternary paragraph. If we decode it as in my previous post, we get “FRANK SHOEMAKER WOULD CALL THIS NOISE”. Note that the grey shaded areas are double spaces – if only the I, II, and III symbols mattered, what are these random extra spaces doing in there? A transcription error seems unlikely. To me, it seems like this was written on graph paper in a specific way, then transcribed to a blank sheet of paper. Effort was taken to ensure the symbols reflected the original alignment – while the whole paragraph may be out of overall “grid” alignment, each individual “tic” is well-oriented in relation to it’s neighbours.

Is it on a grid:

  • for simple boring organization’s sake? If so, why the double spaces?
  • to create some sort of bitmap which maps to the symbols? Alone it seems to provide little help, perhaps it is combined with another section?
  • so that “windows” are cut in the grid according to some specification and it is then laid over another section/combination of sections?

Hexadecimal Section

The hexadecimal section consists of two lines of 12 symbol/letter pairs, seen below.

Note that this transcription uses the same images if a hex/symbol pair repeats, for the sake of lazy html/Photoshop and in an attempt to weed out “noise”. Note this will backfire horribly if the point of the letter is in fact noise – from my preliminary analysis I didn’t see anything too significantly different between duplicated hex/symbol pairs, feel free to correct me.

Note that 1 and A are not included in these 24 pairs. 24 is evenly divisible by 3, I’m not sure if this is relevant, but interesting since the other decodings are based off triplets.

After this is a “signoff” with one symbol we’ve never seen before. I hesistate to call it “undefined” since we are not confident that the hexadecimal digits in fact “define” the symbols.

What are the meanings of the symbol/hex pairs?

  • They belong to three/etc “groups” like in an IQ test, and are used to map hex digits to other digits which will create a new message
  • They are a distinct message by themselves. The hex digits were added later to translate an employee number (see Binary Paragraph) out of the “signoff”.
  • The sixteen hex digits map to musical notes and the symbols mean nothing – Update: this has been attempted, and unless Timbaland produces it and the video involves a lot of nudity, it’s far from a number one hit.
  • The symbols are a convoluted mathematical equation, and the hex digits and signoff allow us to decode it somehow

There’s a million more, but there’s a few to start. If you’ve disproved any/have any new ones, post in comments.

Binary Paragraph

Bottom Grid View

I realize this is impossible to read, but the overall view is what we’re after. Grab the raw data at the top if that’s what you want. Note again that the grey spots are “double spaced” and everything is in a grid, leading to the same questions as before.

If we decode this as described in the previous post, we get “EMPLOYEE NUMBER BASSE SIXTEEN”. The spelling of BASE is off, and could be a reference to the French word for low, although I suspect simple repetition of a triad by accident

If we look at how the message is decoded, this has to be a single “I”, however it appears to be significantly out of place compared to all the other marks. A minor transcription error, or a clue? I think it’s a transcription error – because it’s part of the second S in BASSE. I think he accidentally transcribed S (201) twice, then realized his error at the end when the spacing started to go off.

This leads me to believe that there probably aren’t images stored in the “dashes” in some manner (otherwise he would have fixed the second S, or all the information is contained before this), and the grid was simply to organize or for another purpose.

As well, if we decode it based on simple Morse code (I=dot, II=dash) it reads EUREKA until trailing off to gibberish (credit Henry H in comments). It’s possible that it isn’t gibberish, but since Morse letters are different lengths decoding this becomes a huge pain. My guess is it’s a red herring with no real meaning, but still something to note.


All I can say is I hope this helps someone, and if you figure out anything, let me know! The only thing I think I managed to figure out of note is why it’s “BASSE” sixteen instead of “BASE”. I’m insanely busy this week so I can’t put as much time toward it as I like, perhaps this weekend will be more illuminating…

Fermilab’s Strange Letter – Progress

Note to readers: I have a little more detail (including an explanation for the spelling of “BASSE”) up at Fermilab’s Strange Letter – Interlude.

Well, now we’re getting somewhere with the strange letter Fermilab received. For context, Fermilab (a theoretical physics laboratory) recieved a strange letter in code a year ago that they’ve now released to the public. It can be seen here.

Ternary Paragraph

The first paragraph is made entirely of three different symbols, I, II, and III.

If we let I=1, II=2, and III=0 we have:

020 200 001 112 102
000 201 022 120 012
111 001 102 012 200
000 212 120 210 110
011 000 010 001 110
110 000 202 022 100
201 000 112 120 100
201 012

Note that this transcription assumes that the “I” at the end of line 6 and the “II” at the start of line 7 are in fact a single “III”. Now let’s assume that since there are 27 possible combinations in these ternany units, each corresponds to a letter of the alphabet (26 total) or a space (add 1 for 27). A naive mapping would be:

Combination Mapping 1
000 A
001 B
002 C
010 D
011 E
012 F
020 G
021 H
022 I
100 J
101 K
102 L
110 M
111 N
112 O
120 P
121 Q
122 R
200 S
201 T
202 U
210 V
211 W
212 X
220 Y
221 Z
222 (space)

This gives:


“GSBOLATIPFNBLFSAXPVMEADBMMAUIJTAOPJTF” doesn’t seem too helpful. Perhaps a different map would be more appropriate? Let’s vary the first naive mapping slightly.

Combination Mapping 1 Mapping 2
000 A (space)
001 B A
002 C B
010 D C
011 E D
012 F E
020 G F
021 H G
022 I H
100 J I
101 K J
102 L K
110 M L
111 N M
112 O N
120 P O
121 Q P
122 R Q
200 S R
201 T S
202 U T
210 V U
211 W V
212 X W
220 Y X
221 Z Y
222 (space) Z

This is a very simple mapping, we just set space to be 000 instead of 222. We get a very interesting result:


“FRANK SHOEMAKER WOULD CALL THIS NOISE”. Frank Shoemaker worked on the main ring of Fermilab. It seems very unlikely to me that this is coincidence.

Binary Paragraph

Now if we look at the last paragraph, it’s clearly different than the first in terms of notation. Only I and II are used.

However, if we assume that “II” is a separator and “I”=1 “I I”=2, and “I I I”=0, we get the following:

012 111 121 110 120
221 012 012 000 112
210 111 002 012 200
000 002 001 201 201
012 000 201 100 220
202 012 012 112

Note that this transcription assumes an error. At the end of line 2 and the beginning of line 3 there is a section “I I I I I I I I” that is assumed to mean 000 when it should read “I I I II I I I II I I I”. If we use Mapping 2 to substitute in a manner like before we get the following:


“EMPLOYEE NUMBER BASSE SIXTEEN” – which clicks with the hexadecimal numbers and corresponding symbols in the middle! Note that the mapping is simply the first “naive” mapping offset by one.

So lets assume the single “word” in the bottom middle of the page is an employee number. If we decode it using the symbols, we get (something)FC. (something) is an undefined symbol, and the only undefined numbers are 1 and A.

So the “employee number in base 16” that “frank shoemaker would call noise” is either 1FC or AFC.

My guess? It’s AFC (employee number 2812), who works on the AFC (Absorber Focus Coil, a component of a “neutrino factory” current being studied at Fermilab) – a coincidence Frank Shoemaker would call noise. The employee number is reasonable and fits with the established pattern at Fermilab, see this Fermilab newsletter (page 5) which states “At 802, with only three digits, Matthews’ employee number reflects the length of his 25-year tenure at the Lab”.

The only thing left is rigorously figuring out the meaning of the hexadecimal section in my opinion. What does everyone else think?

Fermilab’s Strange Letter

Note to readers: I’ve got some very interesting progress up here.

There’s a great post over at symmetry magazine about a strange letter they received a year ago, written entirely in some sort of code. The actual letter can be seen here.

Looks to be rather interesting. At first grasp, we can see that the top “paragraph” seems to be in some sort of base-3 notation (either 1, 2, or 3 lines in a group), and the bottom paragraph in a similar manner seems to be in base-2.

The middle section seems to correspond somewhat with hexadecimal digits, and there are three letters from the code above the “last” paragraph. If we take it to be a partial code, it spells out “SFC” – the only SFC I could find in relation to Fermilab (who publish symmetry magazine) was the quasi-related Societe Francaise de Chimie. I’m thinking dead end, anyone else have any other bright ideas?

Rough work follows:

Top paragraph, grouped by line:
(3,2,3,2,3,3,3,3,1,1,1,2,1,3,2) (15 total groupings)
(3,3,3,2,3,1,3,2,2,1,2,3,3,1) (14 total groupings)
(2,1,1,1,3,3,1,1,3,2,3,1,2,2,3,3) (16 total groupings)
(3,3,3,2,1,2,1,2,3,2,1,3,1,1,3) (15 total groupings)
(3,1,1,3,3,3,3,1,3,3,3,1,1,1,1) (15 total groupings)
(2,1,1,3,3,3,3,2,3,2,3,2,2,1,1) (15 total groupings)
(2,3,2,3,1,3,3,3,1,1,2,1,2,3,1) (15 total groupings)
(3,3,2,3,1,3,1,2) (8 total groupings)

Top paragraph thoughts: total number of groupings, 113. 113 is a prime number, this may be significant. Is there any significance to the fact that the numbers on the second and third lines are 14 and 16 instead of 15 and 15? In decimal notation this would be 720113244210716512990341782103795379056660114385796527.

Middle paragraph, grouped by line, hex only:
(F,0,B,E,5,8,F,2,F,D,6,3) (12 symbols/hex digits)
(6,C,7,9,D,2,E,4,9,3,E,6) (12 symbols/hex digits)

Middle paragraph thoughts: Why are there symbols at all? This appears to be information duplicated in two codings. Hex digit frequency (digit-freq): 0-1, 1-0, 2-2, 3-2, 4-1, 5-1, 6-3, 7-1, 8-1, 9-2, A-0, B-1, C-1, D-2, E-3, F-3. In decimal notation this would be 74506518313470710988407084006.

Random line: S (unknown symbol?), F, C. Why is there a symbol there, directly after definition of symbols, that is not defined? Is it the undefined hex digit A? Is it significant that the “beginning” is defined?

Bottom paragraph, grouped by line:
(1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1) (36 groupings)
(1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,1) (37 groupings)
(1,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1) (37 groupings)
(2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2) (37 groupings)
(1,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,2,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1) (36 groupings)
(1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,1) (37 groupings)
(2,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2,1,1,2,1,1,1,2,1,2) (36 groupings)
(1,1,2,1,2,1,2,1,1) (9 groupings)

Bottom paragraph thoughts: 265 total groupings, prime factors are 5 and 53. In line 4, 2111 repeats 6 times, the square root of the number of groupings in the first line. 1 occurs 179 times (prime number), 2 occurs 86 times (prime factors 2 and 43). 2 never occurs more than once, and 1 occurs either as 1, 11, or 111. In decimal notation this would be 4785997412726154595979555835418260996622867313584208882680343839351760783444564.

Assuming “II” is a seperator, the last “paragraph” reads:

(3,1,2,1,1,1,1,2,1,1,1,3,1,2,1) (15 numbers)
(2,2,2,1,3,1,2,3,1,2,3,4) (12 numbers) (4 at end)
(4,1,1,2,2,1,3,1,1,1,3,3,2) (13 numbers) (4 at beginning)
(3,1,2,2,3,3,3,3,3,3) (10 numbers) (long streak of 3s)
(3,2,3,3,1,2,3,1,3,1,2) (11 numbers) (multiple “II”s after each other)
(1,1,2,3,3,3,2,3,1,1,3,3) (12 numbers)
(2,2,3,2,3,2,3,1,2,3,1) (11 numbers)
(2,1,1,2) (4 numbers)

88 total numbers, prime factors (2*2*2*11). New problems: the 4s. We haven’t seen this before. Also, if 2 is a seperator, why does it separate nothing near the end of line 5? I’m not sure if this is the correct approach.