It didn’t look like the entrance to a rabbit hole at first; it was just a guest lecturer in a physics class.
It was Caitlin Dolt’s sophomore year at William & Mary and Josh Erlich was walking her physics class through a derivation.
“We were comparing our results, and Professor Erlich writes ‘CF’ on the board,” Dolt said. “And a friend of mine, Michael Parker, raises his hand and says ‘I don't know what that stands for. Is that a variable?’”
Erlich explained that ‘CF’ is used to invite comparison between two things — then he admitted that he didn’t know why CF was used.
Caitlin Dolt knew why. She was fresh from a Latin class with Chancellor Professor of Classics Lily Panoussi, a class in which this very word had been discussed 10 minutes earlier.
“I didn't even raise my hand. I just spoke out of turn,” she said. “I was like, well, CF stands for conferatur. It's the passive form of the Latin verb confer — to compare.”
Erlich, a physics professor who sometimes wears a Darth Vader outfit to class, gazed at her steadily for a few seconds, Dolt recalled. Then he asked her to stop into his office after class.
“And I was like, Oh, my God! Why did I just do that? Why did I just speak out of turn? Why? What was I….? What necessity? What? Why would I do that?” she remembered. “And so, the rest of the lecture, I'm just sitting there, like, Oh, my God, I'm in trouble. Oh, no, no.”
Dolt had no cause for worry. Rather than delivering a stern lecture on classroom etiquette and academic deportment, Erlich wondered if she was interested in taking on a research project. She was.
The two of them met the next day, and Erlich introduced Dolt to the Principia. To be precise, they discussed William & Mary’s copy of the first edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The Principia is the crown jewel of W&M Libraries’ Special Collection Research Center. It was printed in 1687, in Latin, the common language among learned people in that time.
Erlich had, for a few years, been at the center of a rotating group of faculty and students who were trying to figure out the identity of the scholar who made annotations and corrections — also in Latin— in the margins of the book. Dolt’s ‘CF’ outburst outed her as a Latin-literate physics major, therefore a likely recruit to the cause. In a matter of days (and not very many), she was immersed in a centuries-old whodunit and continent-spanning paper chase.
“I talk about how I fell into a rabbit hole, and I cannot possibly put enough emphasis on that,” Dolt said. “I'm sitting there on the floor of my sophomore dorm, and I have like, two laptops with 50 tabs open. Screenshots and pictures and leaflets — piles of paper. I am in the trenches.”
She was able to answer the main question and identify the Annotator in less than two weeks. It was Thomas Staughton Savage, a physician-clergyman who donated his copy of the Principia to William & Mary in 1869. Intense comparison of the annotations with known correspondence of Savage clinched it. Dolt said Savage penned particularly distinctive lowercase “p’s” and “d’s.”
But the Principia held more mysteries for Dolt, enough to make it the subject of her physics thesis. For one thing, there was a secret code, as well as some annotations that didn’t tie to Savage, most intriguingly the appearances of the word dico, Latin for “I say.”
Those dicos brought to mind the possibility that they were written by Gottfried Leibniz, a German contemporary of Newton. Leibniz and Newton both had strong claims for being the inventor of calculus and there was no love lost between the two. It’s easy to imagine Leibniz reading the work of his rival and angrily dico-ing passages that he thought he might have stated prior to Newton.
A Principia peppered with dicos that could be definitively attributed to Leibniz would be huge news in the history-of-science world, as it would go a long way toward settling (or rekindling) the “who invented calculus” debate.
It looked promising, for a time. Dolt found some scans of Leibnitz’s handwriting online and saw that they shared some of the same characteristics as the dicos in the Principia margins.
“And at this point, Jack Martin points out that every time that there's a dico written in the margins, there's a dico written in the printed text,” she said, adding that there’s no evidence that the W&M Principia was ever in Leibnitz’s hands. “So, I figured maybe they’re not that important.”
Martin is the Chancellor Professor of English and Linguistics. Dolt and Erlich had consulted him about aspects of the Principia, notably the annotations in what they were calling the “secret code.” Dolt had already made significant progress in cracking the code.
She had reasoned that as the most prevalent verbs in English were forms of “am” and “are,” so it made sense that the most common combination of symbols in the code would be verbs of being in Latin. She believed she had puzzled out the symbols representing S, N & T.
“I found myself on more than one occasion, knee deep in binders of the Principia, sticky notes, Latin textbooks and tables of secret codes,” Dolt said. “I’m sitting cross-legged on my couch, glaring at the pages of a book that will not reveal its secrets to me.
“I am more stubborn than you,” she informed the university’s priceless first edition of Isaac Newton’s masterwork. “We’re going to have to work together whether you like it or not.”
Somewhere along the line, the Principia achieved something like roommate status, as Dolt began to refer to the book as “she” and “her.” And, in the tradition of tight-lipped roommates, the Principia finally revealed a bit of herself.
“I was sitting right here, in my kitchen island,” Dolt said. “In the right chair, right in front of my wall of pictures of my best friends. I was sitting right here when I made this discovery.”
She said she had just got off the phone with her grandparents and had resumed staring at the Principia.
“And all of a sudden, it just appeared,“ Dolt said. “And everything fell into place.”
She was able to piece together an alphabet working from the glyphs representing S, N and T — used together to represent the Latin word sunt, or “they are.” Martin informed Dolt and Erlich that the secret code was known as an abjab writing system, one that contains only consonants.
And the symbols were part of a shorthand system, rather than a code. Dolt found correspondence in which Thomas Staughton Savage references using a shorthand system, pointing to Savage as the code-shorthand annotator.
In late April, she was back in the trenches, finishing up her Principia-based thesis. She had an internship with the tech company Equinix over the summer and continues doing work for the firm. She’ll join Equinix full time after graduation as a solutions architect.
“I was able to market myself with this identity of a translator, both from Latin to English, but also between highly technical people and people that maybe get scared when they see derivatives and integrals on the chalkboard,” Dolt said.
Dolt said her Equinix job interview consisted substantially of her relating her work with the Principia. Her work has garnered substantial attention, including a segment on Virginia Humanities radio program With Good Reason.
“I just kind of poured myself into it. And it's been without a doubt the most rewarding experience of my time at William & Mary, if not my entire life. It's just been so wonderful to have a space where I can ask questions, and I get to discover without really any pressure with it,” she said. “It's been a really special space for me to grow as both a scholar but also just as a human being.”