Transcript / LoLT: Solving a 16th-Century Code & Two New Books — 03 March 2023

Transcript / LoLT: Solving a 16th-Century Code & Two New Books — 03 March 2023

Friday, 3 March, 2023

This is a transcription of Solving a 16th-Century Code & Two New Books — 03 March 2023’


[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, a novel about three generations of women who’s family business is witchcraft.

David: A look at our brains.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

David: Before we get started, a short programming note. We will not be here next week! We are headed to Scotland. We’re going to enjoy scones and bacon sarnies and take in the windswept islands of Shetland. We will probably tell you more when we get back. But — just wanted to let you know. No Library of Lost Time on Friday, March 10th.

Melissa: My pick this week is Weyward by Emilia Hart. This book has three things that are nearly irresistible for me to resist: a story that’s set in one location across three different time periods, crows, and witchcraft.

Melissa: The action takes place in a remote village in Cumbria — that’s an English county that’s so far north, it may as well be in Scotland. The name of the village is Crows Beck. Out of curiosity I googled it, a beck is a stream.

Melissa: Anyway. Moving on. We meet one of our heroines in 2019 London. Her name is Kate and she’s gone to Crows Beck to get away from an abusive relationship. She goes to live in a cottage that she inherited from her eccentric Aunt Violet. Aunt Violet was an entomologist. She also had the ability to command crows.

Melissa: As she’s getting settled and poking around her new home, she finds a cache of documents about her family’s powers, a secret that dates back to 1619, when her ancestor Altha Weyward was put on trial for witchcraft.

Melissa: One final thing I need to tell you: I read almost exclusively on a black and white Kindle, so I rarely pay attention to book covers. But the cover for Weyward is gorgeous. It looks like a cabinet of curiosities. The illustration is all done in jewel-tone hues, and there’s a crow surrounded by fruits, plants, mushrooms, and colorful insects. That’s Weyward by Emilia Hart, and it’s out on March 7.

David: Why do our brains work the way they do? One example of the weirdness in our brains is nightmares. When I’m stressed out, I might have a nightmare; maybe it wakes me up. That is my brain waking itself up because my brain is worried about something my brain made up. What is that?

David: And that wrecks the restorative properties of sleep, which is a thing my brain needs for reasons no one understands. But we’ll go crazy if we don’t get sleep. How long are we supposed to endure this tyranny?

David: If you’re curious about the sometimes traitor, sometimes invaluable collaborator in your head, let me recommend a new book. It’s called ‘Psych: The Story of the Human Mind’ by Paul Bloom.

David: Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a Professor Emeritus at Yale. He has also written for the Atlantic, Slate, and The New Yorker. He understands the value of a good metaphor or an interesting anecdote.

David: The book he’s written is a gentle retelling of his course at Yale, Psyc 110: The Introduction to Psychology. He will take you through how we have conscious experience and the value of emotions. And then he takes that info and brings it into the relevant now. Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Why does prejudice seem to be on the rise? What’s the best way to lead a happy and fulfilling life?

David: My brain would like to learn more about itself. He’s very self-absorbed that way. Maybe yours would too. This book just came out this week. It’s ‘Psych: The Story of the Human Mind by Paul Bloom.

David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

David: Three strangers have decoded a stack of secret letters that have stumped scholars since the 16th century.

David: It sounds like the plot of a Neal Stephenson novel, but it really happened. A French computer scientist, a Japanese physicist, and a German opera professor met through the internet. The computer scientist — his name is George Lasry — had found a stack of coded letters in the National Library of France. The letters were from the 16th century. Lasry was just curious. He wanted some help, so he recruited the other two.

David: The code was based on symbols, so it wasn’t clear what language they were dealing with. There were 191 symbols, so it wasn’t a simple substitution code. The team transcribed everything into a digital-friendly format. They fed it to a computer. Then, they started trying different languages. The letters had been found in a pile of Italian correspondence, so they tried that. Nope. Latin? Nope. French?

David: When they tried French, the computer gave them some possible words. Fils – the French word for ‘son.’ And ‘ma liberte,’ my freedom. As always, my French accent est parfais. So they start guessing they’ve got letters from a mother who was being held somewhere, sometime in the 1500s.

David: And each word they unlocked got them a little further. And then they decoded the word ‘Walsingham.’ Francis Walsingham was the spymaster for Queen Elizabeth the First. Well, that’s curious. What captive mother would be talking about Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century?

David: And then they thought, well, her cousin. Mary Stuart. Who we know better as Mary Queen of Scotts. She was in prison. She was a mother. And she would have been sending coded letters about overthrowing Elizabeth. Mary was second in succession to the English throne. And Walsingham was spying on her.

David: So they went to some scholars, and the scholars were all: no. There’s no way that’s right. The team kept working on it. They realized that some symbols stood for names or parts of words. Lasry said it was like doing the world’s most byzantine Sunday crossword.

David: But they got through it. They sent their findings to John Guy at Cambridge — one of the world’s leading experts on Mary, Queen of Scots. He looked at it. Compared it to some other ciphers, they he knew she had written. And he said , ‘This is the most important new finding on Mary Stuart in over a hundred years.’

David: A scholarly article written by Lasry and his team was just published in the academic journal Cryptologia on the 8th of February. February 8 is also the anniversary of Mary’s execution. The letters have already shed light on Mary’s many schemes. They say the new information should keep historians busy for decades. Their paper is available online if you want an idea of modern code-breaking looks like or if you’re just interested in seeing 16th-century spycraft.

Melissa: Visit for more about the books we discussed and Mary Queen of Scots’ secret code.

David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


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