More On 11/11/11

What’s So Special About the Date 11/11/11?

Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Date: 07 November 2011 Time: 01:38 PM ET

In medieval times, numerologists — those who searched for the mystical significance of numbers — believed all numbers had both positive and negative aspects … except for 11. In the words of the 16th century scholar Petrus Bungus, 11 “has no connection with divine things, no ladder reaching up to things above, nor any merit.” Stuck between the divine numbers 10 and 12, 11 was pure evil, and represented sinners.

That doesn’t bode well for Nov. 11, 2011, the date when three 11s will align for the first time in a century. A new horror film, “11/11/11,” has even been made for the occasion, and it plays on (or perhaps plays up) people’s fear of coincidences surrounding the number. Film characters experience the so-called “11:11 phenomenon,” a tendency to look at the clock more often at 11:11 than at other times of the day. In the film, this is a warning of what’s to come: “On the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year, a gateway will open … and on this day, innocent blood will spill,” says a voiceover in the trailer

Indeed, the 11:11 phenomenon is widely reported in real life, with entire online discussion forums dedicated to figuring out what the number means. People say they feel haunted by 11s, which appear to them eerily often. To them, the impending date is bound to seem ominous.

On the flip side, some modern-day numerologists have deemed 11/11/11 auspicious, and according to local news sources around the country, an unusual number of couples have planned to marry on the day. The number 11 is also a favorite of gamblers — particularly blackjack and Keno players. So, amid all these alternative perspectives, what’s the real deal about repeating 11s? Is there anything special about the numbers lining up?

No. With regards to the 11:11 phenomenon, rather than being a supernatural warning sign, psychologists say it is a classic case of “apophenia,” or the human tendency to find meaning or patterns in randomly occurring data. This condition feeds on itself, because the more conscious you are of something — such as repeating 11s — the more often you’ll notice it in the world around you, and thus the more certain you’ll become that the pattern is real.

In online forums about the 11:11 phenomenon, people often say they didn’t notice how many 11s appeared to them until hearing about the phenomenon from someone else. This is a tell-tale sign of apophenia: When they found out about the phenomenon, they subconsciously started keeping track of all the 11s they saw, with each new sighting seeming more significant than the last.

Just as there is nothing to fear about 11/11/11, there is no reason to be optimistic about the date, either.

According to Alan Lenzi, professor of religious studies at University of the Pacific who studiesbiblical numerology, seeking meaning in numbers is a natural human tendency. “Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that the human brain is hard-wired to look for meaningful patterns in the sensory data it collects from the world,” Lenzi told Life’s Little Mysteries.

In most situations, this cognitive wiring helps us: It enables us to pick important information out of a background of random noise. But sometimes we overdo it by finding patterns where they aren’t — from faces seen in the clouds to numerical coincidences. Once found, these patterns “are easily imbued with imaginative meaning,” he said.

There is nothing unusual about the time 11:11 or the date 11/11/11, but our brains can’t help noticing the repeating digits, and seeing them as meaningful. “Numbers that are already significant to us, such as calendar dates that also coincidentally fall into an obvious pattern, become doubly significant,” Lenzi said. “11/11/11 is another example of people doing what people are cognitively prone to do: find significance.”


Unlocking the “Copiale Cypher”

USC Scientist Cracks Mysterious “Copiale Cipher”

Released: 10/25/2011 11:45 AM EDT
Source: University of Southern California


Newswise — The manuscript seems straight out of fiction: a strange handwritten message in abstract symbols and Roman letters meticulously covering 105 yellowing pages, hidden in the depths of an academic archive.

Now, more than three centuries after it was devised, the 75,000-character “Copiale Cipher” has finally been broken.

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold and green brocade paper, reveals the rituals and political leanings of a 18th-century secret society in Germany. The rituals detailed in the document indicate the secret society had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology, though it seems members of the secret society were not themselves eye doctors.

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” said computer scientist Kevin Knight of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, part of the international team that finally cracked the Copiale Cipher. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”

To break the Copiale Cipher, Knight and colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden tracked down the original manuscript, which was found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War and is now in a private collection. They then transcribed a machine-readable version of the text, using a computer program created by Knight to help quantify the co-occurrences of certain symbols and other patterns.

“When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite,” Knight said. “Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer.”

With the Copiale Cipher, the codebreaking team began not even knowing the language of the encrypted document. But they had a hunch about the Roman and Greek characters distributed throughout the manuscript, so they isolated these from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the true code.

“It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure,” Knight says.

After trying 80 languages, the cryptography team realized the Roman characters were “nulls,” intended to mislead to reader. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.

The team then tested the hypothesis that abstract symbols with similar shapes represented the same letter, or groups of letters. Eventually, the first meaningful words of German emerged: “Ceremonies of Initiation,” followed by “Secret Section.”

For more information about the method of decipherment, visit

Knight is now targeting other coded messages, including ciphers sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who sent taunting messages to the press and has never been caught. Knight is also applying his computer-assisted codebreaking software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of “Kryptos,” an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

But for Knight, the trickiest language puzzle of all is still everyday speech. A senior research scientist in the Intelligent Systems Division of the USC Information Sciences Institute, Knight is one of the world’s leading experts on machine translation — teaching computers to turn Chinese into English or Arabic into Korean. “Translation remains a tough challenge for artificial intelligence,” said Knight, whose translation software has been adopted by companies such as Apple and Intel.

With researcher Sujith Ravi, who received a PhD in computer science from USC in 2011, Knight has been approaching translation as a cryptographic problem, which could not only improve human language translation but could also be useful in translating languages that are not currently spoken by humans, including ancient languages and animal communication.

The National Science Foundation funds Knight’s cryptography and translation research. The Copiale Cipher work was presented as part of an invited presentation at the 2011 Association for Computational Linguistics meeting.

For more information about the video or to arrange an interview with Professor Kevin Knight, contact Suzanne Wu