Book Review: The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography

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Note: This is the first of a series of book reviews previously published in The Citizen Scientist. Although these books have been out for awhile, they represent excellent titles that the informed amateur scientist should at least know about. We wish to thank Mike Dziekan for his permission to reprint this review. -sg

Book Review: The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography

Simon Singh. ISBN 0-0-385-49531-5.

Reviewed by Mike Dziekan.
Connecticut Analytical Corporation

Who among us can ever forget the thrill we experienced as a kid when we were able to decode a secret message or break a secret code? Simon Singh has taken this experience to an entirely new level in The Code Book.

The book follows the history and development of codes and ciphers throughout the ages, starting with the ancient Greeks and ending with present day quantum cryptography. The different methods that are detailed include simple monoalphabetic substitution ciphers, the Vigenère cipher, the one-time pad, the Enigma machine, the Navajo code talkers of World War Two, public key cryptography, quantum cryptography and more.

If you are unfamiliar with any or all of these methods, or if you don’t know the difference between a code and a cipher, it would behoove you to purchase a copy of The Code Book. Whether you are interested in only the theory, mathematics, history, or cultural significance of codes and ciphers, you will find this book highly rewarding and challenging.

Singh included a series of ten Cipher Challenges at the end of the book. When the book was first published in 1999, Singh offered a $15,000 cash reward for the first person to successfully break all ten challenges. This challenge amount was valid for one year, and after that, $1,500 was offered. Unfortunately, you can’t claim the prize. A team of Swedish amateur and professional code breakers managed to break all ten. If you are interested in being a spoiler then go to CodeBook_Answers .

Although challenging and difficult, I suggest that, after reading the book, you give an honest effort to try to crack the ten codes for yourself. The book teaches many valuable methods of attacking a cipher. I did manage to break the first two cipher challenges in a relatively short amount of time with the help of MathCad , and had partial success with the third cipher challenge. I won’t give away any information, as I am sure that there are some readers out there that are up to the challenge. I stopped when I learned that the tenth cipher challenge was broken, but since it is such an irresistible challenge, I may go back and see how far I can go with it anyway.

Whether you are a mathematician, linguist, cryptographer, teacher, or just a curious individual, give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and at least attempt the cipher challenge. I guarantee that you will find it not only highly challenging but also highly rewarding. Test yourself and see what you are made of; it doesn’t matter if you are nine or ninety-nine, try it!

Simon Singh maintains a web site SimonSingh and if you visit, be sure to check out the online store. Singh has recently released a CD based upon the book Crypto_CD .

The CD contains the following material:

1. Encryption tools.
2. Code breaking tools.
3. Coded messages to crack
4. Material for teachers, e.g., worksheets.
5. A realistic, virtual Enigma cipher machine.
6. A beginner’s cryptography tutorial.
7. A history of codes from 1000 BC to 2000 AD.
8. Material for junior code breakers.
9. An animated section on quantum cryptography.
10. Sections on public key crypto and RSA.

Singh’s web site also has a section devoted to the cipher challenge that will give you additional insight, Cipher_Challenge . The individual cipher challenges can be viewed online at The_Ciphertexts .

Just remember, an insecure method of encrypting communications could not only cost you your secrets, but also your head–just ask Mary Queen of Scots! Read the book and keep your head. It will also give you new insight into what’s going on behind the scenes when the little padlock symbol appears on the bottom of your web browser when logging onto a secure web site. Have you ever wondered how security is handled on the Internet?

You may find yourself with the urge to dig up your old secret decoder ring. After all, there’s a little code breaker in all of us.

One thing to bear in mind is that the subtitle of the book may differ based upon the printing (i.e., first or second). There is also a UK version with a completely different cover.

Mike Dziekan
Connecticut Analytical Corporation

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