NON- FICTION Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies by CRAIG P. BAUER
— Charlie Marshall, science educator
Princeton University Press (2017) RRP $ 367.95 Hardcover
FDHVDUVDODG. Is there anything so mysterious as an unbroken cipher? In fiction, the device has propelled the adventures of Indiana Jones and the thrills of the Da Vinci Code. Yet, as Unsolved! shows us, those from real life are altogether more compelling.
This book, by cryptographer and mathematician Craig Bauer, focuses on codes and ciphers that – despite the efforts of the world’s greatest codebreakers – remain unsolved. Each is a gateway to a story of intrigue, populated by all manner of shadowy characters: spies, criminals, pirates, and artful dodgers.
Some of the tales come in the genre of the spy novel, such as the one that began in 1948 when an unidentified (and unidentifiable) man was found dead on Somerton Beach, South Australia. In the fob pocket of his trousers, police found a scrap of paper which had been torn from a book of poetry, and held just two words: tamám shud (“ended” or “finished” in Persian).
Police eventually tracked down the particular book from which the page had been torn, leading to more clues, and an encrypted message of a few dozen letters. Almost 70 years on and the message has never been deciphered, although many suspect those few symbols hold the key to explaining who Somerton Man was, and why he died while sitting on the sand, smoking a cigarette.
Other stories are pure crime, such as the story of the infamous Zodiac, a serial killer of supervillain proportions who was never caught, despite the coded clues he used to taunt the authorities and the press. The Zodiac killer murdered at least five, and possibly more than 20, people across Northern California in the 1960s and 70s. Although some of the killer’s ciphers were cracked at the time (including one that began with the chilling phrase “I LIKE KILLING PEOPLE BECAUSE IT IS SO MUCH FUN … ”) several of them remain unbroken to this day (including one that starts “My name is ___”). Could the solution finally reveal the murderer’s identity?
Yet other yarns carry the allure of buried treasure, such as the gold and diamonds plundered from the Portuguese ship Vierge du Cap in 1721. Caught and sentenced to hang in 1730, the French pirate Olivier le Vasseur was led to the gallows, at which point he threw a piece of paper to the crowd and shouted his final words: “Find my treasure who can!”
Almost 300 years later, nobody has managed to crack his message and claim the booty.
Some stories concern historical artefacts, such as the Voynich manuscript, a book handwritten in a unique script hundreds of years ago, its mystery only heightened by unusual drawings of plants and cosmological diagrams that illustrate the pages.
The manuscript has sometimes been dismissed as a hoax, perhaps designed to take advantage of the “mad alchemist” King Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1575 to 1612. Yet modern analysis of the book’s weird symbols reveal patterns suggesting language, rather than the gibberish that might be expected in a hoax. But what language, no one can say.
A more contemporary mystery is the Cicada 3301 a series of online challenges, posted in 2012, 2013 and 2014, that were presented as a recruitment mechanism for a secret organisation in search of “highly intelligent individuals”. The simultaneous appearance of one set of clues – QR codes posted on telephone poles – in 14 locations across the globe seem to suggest
WE LEARN HOW CIPHERS HAVE EVOLVED, FROM THE SIMPLE TRANSPOSING OF THE ALPHABET USED BY JULIUS CAESAR, TO THE MODERN ENCRYPTION SYSTEMS.
a group with significant resources. But
why? Nobody knows. And we might never know. No one who has completed the challenge and communicated with its creators has ever come forward.
This last may be just a game, or it may not. The book’s later chapters, which describe the more modern encryptions, are a reminder of the exploding growth in the importance of cryptography.
Ciphers have always guarded important secrets – but encryption has never been so prevalent as today. Each of us carries more passwords than we care to remember. In the digital age – where a well-timed ‘leak’ of sensitive emails can help sway an election, or a TV screen can be turned into a monitoring device — experts in encryption and decryption must be some of the planet’s most useful people.
Each of the ciphers in Unsolved! remains unbroken, at least to public knowledge, and much of the fun of this book is in tracing the various assaults made on them over the decades, and sometimes centuries.
Along the way, we learn how ciphers have evolved, from the simple transposing of the alphabet used by Julius Caesar, to the modern encryption systems based on factoring gigantic numbers, which are the bedrock of internet security.
The new methods for cracking ciphers are equally astounding – enough to make the machines of Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing and colleagues famously cracked the Nazi Enigma cipher system, seem altogether quaint.
Unsolved! is an unusual book of mysteries in that most of the stories lack the final ‘reveal’, where all of the clues fall satisfyingly into place. Yet the book does not suffer for it. Bauer, although at times wont to veer off into academic discourse, is a gifted storyteller.
And a gifted teacher too, with an obvious love of mathematics. This book will especially suit those who love to tackle a puzzle, but whether you like to play or just tag along for the ride, Unsolved! is a thrilling cocktail of true crime, history, mystery and maths.