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Solution to the Fringe Glyph Cipher

April 7th, 2009 · 322 Comments


Within the last week, two things happened: I finally got around to checking out the Fox show Fringe, the first season of which I noticed sitting tantalizingly in the Playstation Store, and my Ars colleague Erica Sadun wrote an article exploring all the delightful little Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the show. In particular she devotes some special attention to the so-called “glyph code”—a series of weird images flanked by glowing dots that appear as interstitial bumpers before commercial breaks. If I hadn’t been way nerdy for crypto before I started writing about the NSA habitually, that certainly pushed me over the edge, and I couldn’t resist taking a stab myself.

Now, here’s the part that pains me just a bit: Erica did a whole bunch of work that ultimately enabled me to crack the thing in a couple of minutes, but stopped just a hair short of the solution.  From where she left off, it’s actually incredibly simple once you make one crucial assumption.   Alas, there’s no deep dark mystery about the show’s arc concealed here, and the solution’s actually a bit anticlimactic, but it’s below the fold for those who are interested.

So the code is nothing fancy: It’s a simple one-to-one, monoalphabetic substitution cypher.  But it’s isolated words, not a sentence, so handy strings like “the” or “and” don’t recur.   Crucially, there are a couple of letters missing from Erica’s transcription of the pilot episode glyphs and possibly an extra glyph for episode 3, at least as compared with the list here. Also, it looks like there was a flub in the glyphs aired for episode 5.  Throw a couple errors into the mix and a dictionary attack on a  string of characters with no breaks becomes computationally infeasible. (If you want a reasonably quick result from your laptop, anyway.) But it’s trivial if you know where the word breaks are.

Well, by “trivial” I mean “trivial when someone else has already written a really solid algorithm for brute-forcing a ciphertext with a probability-weighted wordlist, and you can just use their code.” The “someone” in this case is UC Irvine computer science prof David Eppstein, whose program and dictionary made short work of the string I gave it despite several errors in that ciphertext. Basically, Eppstein and Erica Sadun did all the real work here,  and I combined the products of their efforts with a few minor tweaks. [Update: And it strikes me I’m being sloppy here; “brute force” implies blindly running through possible keys and checking against a dictionary, which is emphatically not how Eppstein’s very elegant program works—the curious should just read his explanation.]

Sometimes the answers that seem too obvious are correct: Each episode yields a single word, in most cases relating to a central theme of the episode.  Glancing around the Internets, it looks like the key omission some other folks trying to solve it were making was a failure to take into account the orientation of the image and the position of the glowing dot that appears with each. If you don’t factor those in, of course, the cipher seems insoluble because you’re counting a whole series of distinct symbols as a single glyph. Anyway, the solutions for the episodes to date are:

3:  AEGER  [Latin for “sick”]
5:  SURGG [should be SURGE?]

For those who want to play along at home, that makes the letter-to-glyph assignment as below. Not all letters have been assigned glyphs yet, obviously.


Between cracking that and writing this post, I’ve probably given this an hour, which is really more than enough, but if someone wants to Photoshop those together into a translation grid for easy reference so people can transcribe the word for the episode as they watch, I’ll happily post it here. (Done! See update below.)

Eyeballing the incomplete key so far, there do seem to be some obvious glyph clusters, and I should note the possibility that solving the substitution cipher is only step one. Think, for instance, of those acrostic puzzles you sometimes see in the New York Times Magazine, where you fill in responses to a series of clues, then rearrange the letters into an adjacent grid to form a quotation. For purposes of cryptanalysis we can just treat each glyph as though it were a distinct letter chosen at random. But the glyphs actually have internal structure too. They’re a combination of three features: Image, orientation (i.e. each image has a mirror version) and one of (at least) three positions for those glowing dots. Cracking the cipher puts those symbols in a natural order; conceivably there’s some further puzzle to be solved by analysis of that series. Or possibly not… again, I’ve probably given this one too much energy for now, but others might want to give it a look.

Update: Dennis at FringeTelevision has gone ahead and gotten his Photoshop on, producing a lovely, suitable-for-framing key to the glyph cipher. Apparently there’s a new episode tonight, and while I’ll have to wait for it to show up in the PS3 store, those of you with advanced “receiver” technology for your TVs can print out a copy and see what the magic word of the day is:

You can get a bigger version at the link above, or another printer-friendly key from the folks at Fringe Podcast.

Tags: Art & Culture · Language and Literature · Random Cool Link



322 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex // Apr 7, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Wow….fonally!!!Someone solved the glyph codes/puzzle. 🙂

  • 2 The code has been cracked!!!! | TheFringePodcast.com // Apr 7, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    […] editor.  Julian cracked the glyph code!  He gives a run-down of how he did it on his blog.  Check it out and watch for the glyphs […]

  • 3 Darrell // Apr 7, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Great Job!! Here’s a handy printout with all the images and corresponding letter.


  • 4 Max // Apr 7, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Missing glyphs most likely are:
    F – leaf with lower left corner dot
    J – flower with upper right dot
    M – sea horse with lower left dot
    Q – frog with lower left dot
    W – palm with finger to the left and dot on the right
    XYZ – toss-up? 🙂

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Apr 7, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Yeah, that would fit the pattern, though note “T” is something of an odd man out, so it’s possible there are other discontinuities.

    In addition to the mirror clustering, note the theme of plants in the first half of the alphabet, and some animal or body part in the second.

  • 6 Unexpected // Apr 7, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Great job 🙂 look forward to checking out the coming codes and play along…

  • 7 Caroline // Apr 7, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Fantastic job!

  • 8 RWW // Apr 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    So, what did they say tonight?

  • 9 Bill // Apr 7, 2009 at 10:19 pm


    And – W is a mirrored V…

  • 10 J.P. // Apr 7, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I believe it said WALTER.

    The W is indeed the palm of the left hand straight up with a dot to the right.

  • 11 » Test JJMacey Dot Net / Blog: Run Lixux, Run Open Source - Run Free! // Apr 7, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    […] his personal blog, Sanchez writes that the actual solution ended up taking just a few minutes. “[I]t’s actually incredibly simple once you make one crucial assumption,” Sanchez […]

  • 12 Torley // Apr 7, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Congrats for figuring this out and bringing attention to this! I’m a big Fringe fan, and I wondered if there was anything to those images and the little yellow dots.

    I also figured out the notes to the piano theme: http://torley.com/fringe-theme-on-piano so if you want the Glassian melody to go along with your further decipherings, there you have it!

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  • 14 cooliehawk // Apr 8, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Someone’s leaving Ars Technica with a bang.

  • 15 David // Apr 8, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    Well phooie…I obviously dove too far into this one. I had taken the glyphs and was trying to arrange a meaningful image out of the negative space with the dots as the guide.

    This isn’t nearly as complicated as the BSG “Last Supper”

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  • 22 Das große Ganze. « you know that I could use somebody // Apr 9, 2009 at 11:25 am

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  • 23 Marcus Tee // Apr 9, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Didn’t JJ Abrams do this show?
    And didn’t he do Alias? And doesn’t Alias have a code that is shown each time a new location was visited where one letter in the name of the location was highlighted? When you put them all together they too spell something. Has anyone ever cracked that code and if so what the heck did it say?

  • 24 Josh B // Apr 9, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I think your on the right track. I dont understand why some of the codes dont spell words. Episode 5 spells surgg not surge (I went back and checked). Since these pictures are important I doubt they would have messed one of the words up like that. Time to go back to the drawing board

  • 25 Josh B // Apr 9, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Plus the letter E was used in previous episodes…

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  • 27 Julian Sanchez // Apr 9, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    “Since these pictures are important I doubt they would have messed one of the words up like that”

    Actually, I’m told by someone who’s involved with the show that, indeed, that was just a post production goof. Seems like a pretty easy mistake to make: only someone who was familiar with the code and paying close attention would notice anything wrong. Little mistakes like that make it into TV shows and movies all the time.

  • 28 Fringe’s code cracked? | TVStop - Your personal TV Guide // Apr 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    […] turns out the solution is simpler than we thought. Tech Web site Ars Technica editor Julian Sanchez took a stab at the puzzle (which was being worked on by friends) and discovered that each symbol corresponds to a single […]

  • 29 Josh B // Apr 9, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    “Little mistakes like that make it into TV shows and movies all the time.”

    Very true.

    AEGER = latin for sick or ill.
    In episode 3: The Ghost Network. The guy hearing voices thought he was going crazy. Usually hearing voices in your head means you are mentally ill.

    What do you make of the leaf as one of Massive Dynamic’s logos though? Nina Sharp uses the hand scanner to access the room with John Scott.


  • 30 Julian Sanchez // Apr 9, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Aaaaah… I suppose I should’ve, you know, Googled it rather than suggesting it was some kind of typo. Also note that the Bad Guys communicate over the network in Latin.

  • 31 Jen // Apr 10, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Good Job! Yeah I agree #5 would be “surge” as in a surge of electricity, which episode 5 was about.

  • 32 Fringe Glyphs Deciphered! | Television Zombies: Blog and Podcast // Apr 10, 2009 at 6:49 am

    […] can read about how he figured it out at his blog here. What’s cool is that each episode’s glyphs spell out a word that relates to the […]

  • 33 k blodgett // Apr 11, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve never watched the show, I’ve only read these messages, but your own mirror image theme says N should be the mirror seahorse.

  • 34 k blodgett // Apr 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    sorry MMMM mirror seahorse.

  • 35 Julian Sanchez // Apr 11, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    That’s the obvious completion, of course, but there are other deviations from the symmetrical pattern, so leaving the unshown ones blank for now.

  • 36 jess // Apr 12, 2009 at 2:39 am

    wow…here i was just watching for pure pleasure..now that u guys have gone into a complete anaysis mode makes me curious. I am more interested in your thinking tha the show.

  • 37 Sara // Apr 12, 2009 at 1:03 pm


    I think you’re wrong about “F”… it should be the apple with the dot in the bottom right corner

  • 38 *blazer, N of 60 // Apr 12, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    So we know W is a mirror of V. From that, my thoughts on XYZ are…

    X: left hand, fingers tilted toward top right, dot on top left
    Y: mirror of T
    Z: right hand, fingers tilted toward top left, dot on top right = mirror of X

    This would give the last line of the glyphs a nice symmetry and explain the anomoly of the T glyph.


  • 39 Orbiting the Blogosphere « Axiom’s Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy // Apr 13, 2009 at 7:06 am

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  • 40 Cracking the fringe code « Digishark The Tech/Geek Blog // Apr 13, 2009 at 6:27 pm

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  • 41 Darkrenzo // Apr 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I am very interested by this, but i am also a bit sceptical. i had never thought of these symbols being words, but i have always noticed the picture in the picture. for instance…. the black part in the core of the apples are in the shape of a fetus. things likw that. i would love to hear ppl thoughts on that.

  • 42 J.P. // Apr 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    did you get “PETER” during Fringe tonight?

  • 43 dan // Apr 14, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    I think the Images tie into the show. Like the fetus is genetically engineered people. The butterfly was in the episode where the guy was dossed with heavy hallucinogenics. That drug was taken from a frog. And wasn’t there a guy with 6 fingers? or some reference to that?

  • 44 Chris // Apr 15, 2009 at 2:23 am

    Yes, this would make sense as the completed key:


  • 45 Glyphs used in Fringe TV series | UbiKann // Apr 15, 2009 at 5:19 pm

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  • 46 RiteStateOfMind // Apr 17, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Thank you all! I had a feeling that the placement of the dots were making unique instances of each.

    I too, had failed with braille

    …you don’t watch Lost do you???

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  • 48 tori1015 // Apr 19, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Wow!!!!!!! I kept trying to figure out what the symbols meant. Gosh, I hope they do not cancel this show.

  • 49 Alex Natalizio // Apr 20, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Anyone ever notice the secret “Observers are here” message during the opening title?

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