The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking

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The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum CryptographyFrom the best-selling author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book is a history of man’s urge to uncover the secrets of codes, from Egyptian puzzles to modern day computer encryptions.As in Fermat’s Last Theorem, Simon Singh brings life to an anstonishing story of puzzles, codes, languages and riddles that reveals man’s continual pursuit to disguise and uncover, and to work out the secret languages of others.Codes have influenced events throughout history, both in the stories of those who make them and those who break them. The betrayal of Mary Queen of Scots and the cracking of the enigma code that helped the Allies in World War II are major episodes in a continuing history of cryptography. In addition to stories of intrigue and warfare, Simon Singh also investigates other codes, the unravelling of genes and the rediscovery of ancient languages and most tantalisingly, the Beale ciphers, an unbroken code that could hold the key to a $20 million treasure.
With their inextricable links to history, mystery and war, codes and ciphers offer a rich seam of material for any author. The relative dearth of non-technical books on the subject may be a reflection of its technical foundations, which compel hard decisions about what to include and what to gloss over. Few are better qualified to take on the challenge than Simon Singh, the particle physicist turned science writer whose book Fermat’s Last Theorem, recounting the dauntingly complex story behind the proof of this mathematical conjecture, deservedly became a No. 1 bestseller.

The Code Book contains many fascinating accounts of code-breaking in action, from its use in unmasking the Man in the Iron Mask and the defeat of the Nazis to the breaking of a modern cipher system by a world-wide army of amateurs in 1994. It is especially good on the most recent developments, such as quantum cryptology and the thorny civil liberties issues raised by the advent of very secure cipher systems over the Internet. But Singh’s mathematical prowess sometimes gets the better of his journalistic instincts, leading to technical descriptions that unnecessarily disrupt the narrative flow. So buy it–and have a shot at the 10,000 pound mystery cipher–but be prepared to skip. —Robert Matthews