This is the classic story of how in 1952 an architect, Michael Ventris, working part-time, deciphered the inscriptions on some clay tablets found in Crete, and later in mainland Greece, to show that they were written in a syllabic script based on a pre-classical Greece. It is thus a mix of archaeology, philology,and code-breaking. The triumph was all the greater because, as Chadwick points out, a cryptanalyst at least knows what language the code was written in whilst the prevailing view at the time was that these tablets were written in almost any language rather than Greek!
The book details how Ventris worked on the code, how he overcame doubt and triumphed. The story is telescoped into a few short years because Ventris was killed in a road traffic accident on the A1 in 1956. The author collaborated with Ventris immediately after Ventris had made the first breakthrough so this is, as much as any book can be, an insider's point of view. And what makes it wonderful is that it is written in the beautifully understated style of the 1950s, grey, academic and bloodless.
And yet, something of the excitement of dry, grey, bloodless, academic research can be seen. The first words are: "The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature" (p 1). The story of the breaking of the code is likened to nuclear fission: "finally there comes a point when the experimenter feels solid ground beneath his feet: his hypotheses cohere, and fragments of sense emerge from their camouflage. The code 'breaks'. Perhaps this is best defined as the point where the likely leads appear faster than they can be followed up. It is like the initiation of a chain-reaction in atomic physics; once the critical threshold is passed, the reaction propagates itself. Only in the simplest experiments or codes does it complete itself with explosive violence." (p 67)
An interesting story about the emergence of ideas from liminality.
July 2016; 157 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57