Sculptor James Sanborn, creator of "Kryptos"--perhaps the world's most famous piece of cryptographic art--has found that it's not easy keeping a secret for 20 years, particularly one that thousands of fanatical puzzle-solvers are dead set on discovering. Since 1990, when his coded sculpture was first unveiled in the courtyard of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, Sanborn has been deluged with letters, email, phone calls, and even an unsolicited 100+-page paper purporting to crack the code.  

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                                                                      © WGBH Educational Foundation


The seemingly incoherent strings of letters stamped out of Kryptos's copper panels are actually meaningful passages of text. There are four separate passages (K1, K2, K3 & K4), each encoded with a different cryptographic key.

When NOVA first reported on Kryptos in a 2007 NOVA scienceNOW segment, three of the sculpture's four puzzles had been solved. But K4, a passage only 97 characters long, remained elusive. (In the game of cryptography, shorter codes are tougher to decipher because they offer fewer recognizable patterns.) Following the broadcast, Sanborn agreed to field questions from Kryptos's many fans, but he dodged their attempts to fish for answers, noting, "I have already given all of the clues that I want to give."

Apparently, that's now changed.

Tired of the pestering from avid puzzle-doers, and perhaps offering a 20th-anniversary gift to his fans, Sanborn has handed over a partial solution of K4 to The New York Times, which just published the clue.

Sanborn revealed that six letters in the middle of the K4 sequence, NYPVTT, translate in the solution as BERLIN--an intriguing hint, particularly because of its possible wartime connections. When one of NOVA's viewers asked Sanborn in 2007, "What was your inspiration in making Kryptos? Was it solely to stump would-be code-breakers, or was there another reason behind it?" Sanborn replied, "I was always fascinated with spies and the secret ways in which they communicated. I also wanted the artwork to retain a sense of mystery."

BERLIN, while only a small piece of the puzzle, could finally help end the mystery.

Hear Sanborn explain more about Kryptos in this 12-minute video, and send a secret message of your own using NOVA's encoder.
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