Friday, June 03, 2005

Review 4: The Code Book

The science of secrecy from ancient egypt to quantum cryptography
by Simon Singh

As in the case for "A short history about nearly everything", this book is about a subject that doesn't sound too interesting or obvious at first. But Simon Singh describes and analyzes the history of coding in a very captivating and understandable way, the result of both thorough research and funny anecdotes he found along the way.

He starts with the earliest known accounts of coding in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome at around 450 BCE where this new ability lead to some decisive military victories. As well as to treason and intrigue in love matters of course. The methods used at that time are well explained and amazingly easy to reproduce if you know how they work. At the time most didn't
of course , so the secrets were well kept. Until up to around the year 800 CE when Muslim scholars took coding to the next level and dominated the field for 400 years. Then the Europeans woke up from their slumber and this new interest in cryptography and cryptoanalysis culminated in the 'chiffre indéchiffrable' (the unbreakable cipher). But it was only a question of time when it would be broken and so it was indeed in the 19th century. Which meant a big victory for the cryptoanalysts over the cryptographs. And cryptography was temporarily shattered. Until the early 20th century when technical and mechanical advances let it rise from the ashes. This also decisively influenced, and shortened, the two World Wars. Especially the story of the Enigma machine is mind-blowing. There then was a new lull after WW2 but the Information age brought new interest and needs which resulted in the current Internet encryption standard PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). Finally Singh then briefly explains how Quantum cryptography could work and what it would mean for the future.

That's about it. As I've said, it's very readable, enlightening and entertaining though there are parts where it gets a bit too theoretical but you can skip those pages without missing too much. It doesn't prevent understanding what follows. It should yet be noted that one interesting, somewhat off-beat, chapter shows how cryptoanalytical methods were used to decode the hieroglyphs and 'Linear B'.

So, if after reading this book you think that you've got real code cracker skills, then you might want to try to solve the "Beale Papers" mystery ... Happy treasure hunting!

Some information on the author: Simon Singh received his Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University. A former BBC producer, he directed and co-produced an award-winning documentary film on Fermat's Last Theorem that aired on PBS's Nova series and formed the basis of his bestselling book, Fermat's Enigma. He lives in London.


Blogger John said...

If you're really interested in this book, I suggest you check out It's the interest group put together to solve the Challenge in The Code Book. And if you're interest in cryptography is really perked by this book, join the American Cryptogram Association at Finally, check out my blog at

Blogger Daldianus said...

Thanks for the info, John!

Blogger Skarr said...

I have always been fascinated with cryptology. I read somewhere that it was Julius Caesar who started sending messages in code, using a simple alphabet substitution to decipher meaningless prose.

I'm a student of Roman history and since you like reading, I have published a historical fantasy set in ancient Rome. Check my blog for more details.

Good reading on your blog. Very informative. Thanks.

Blogger Daldianus said...

Thanks Skarr. And Julius Caesar indeed was one of the first using encryption for his messages. I'll check out your blog.

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Blogger Dirk said...

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