NON- FIC­TION Un­solved!: The His­tory and Mys­tery of the World’s Great­est Ciphers from An­cient Egypt to On­line Se­cret So­ci­eties by CRAIG P. BAUER

Cosmos - - Contents -

— 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


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.

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