|The Code Book: the Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Sco|
|reviewer||Ellen Knowlton Wilson|
|summary||Singh chronicles the development of codes and ciphers as well as their roles in human events, and discusses the relevance of cryptography in the modern age.|
In The Code Book: the Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography, Simon Singh begins with the courtroom drama of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, and ends discussing current debate over the export of strong cryptography tools. In between, he touches on the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, buried treasure, the Enigma machine, Navajo code-talkers and quantum money, in a manner accessible to laypeople.
Singh approaches the story of cryptography from the perspective of both scientist and science writer. He received his doctorate in physics from Cambridge and produced a documentary about Fermat's Last Theorem which aired on both the BBC and PBS. He is also the author of Fermat's Enigma, which tells the story of Fermat's Last Theorem. Singh's background has prepared him well for this subject; he has the scientist's eye for detail and the writer's ability to communicate concepts in a non-patronizing manner. "Turning to purists," he writes in the introduction, "I should apologise for the title of this book. The Code Book is about more than just codes... Ciphers play an integral role in cryptography, and so this book should really have been called The Code and Cipher Book. I have, however, forsaken accuracy for snappiness."
Indeed, this book is not intended for the diehard cryptography buff, but rather for the general reader. Should the reader become captivated by the subject, Singh has included a section of suggested further readings. The book also contains a contest for $15,000 -- The Cipher Challenge (http://www.4thestate.co.uk/cipherchallenge).
Singh states in his introduction that the objectives of this book as twofold: first, to chart the evolution of codes and chronicle their impact on history; and second, to demonstrate the importance of cryptography in the modern age. Singh clearly succeeds with his first objective, but I found the case for the second to be slightly weaker.
The types of codes and ciphers are illustrated with stories of historical intrigue, such as the treason trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed when the cipher alphabet and code words used by her co-conspirators was cracked, revealing her involvement in a plot unfamiliar to most modern readers. The development of frequency analysis and polyalphabetic substitution ciphers is interwoven with the story of the buried treasure in the American west. The mechanization of codes and ciphers is covered in the sections about the first and second World Wars, and the relation of language and cryptography is illustrated by the use of Navajo code-talkers during the Pacific campaign of World War II. Concepts of cryptography are presented in an accessible and enjoyable manner throughout the book, although readers already familiar with the subject may not gain any new knowledge.
The final three chapters of the book cover public-key encryption and quantum cryptography. I found the explanation of the concepts behind PGP to be clear, and was fascinated by the brief explanation of the legal struggles surrounding encryption. Singh makes some good points about the importance of privacy in the current age, but does not delve too far into the subject. Admittedly, the question of information ownership is such a large one that it merits its own book. The final chapter covers quantum cryptography, which is illustrated by the idea of quantum money. Quantum money would contain polarized photons, known only to the bank, rendering counterfeiting impossible. While still purely theoretical, the idea is fascinating, and indicates the changes sure to evolve as technology changes.
The Code Book is an enjoyable and readable introduction to codes and ciphers for the layperson. Examples of the principles of cryptography are illustrated with examples from history, showcasing their importance of the history, and Singh attempts to make the case for the increasing importance of privacy as technology develops.
Purchase this book at ThinkGeek.
Table of contents:
- The Cipher of Mary Queen of Scots
- Le Chiffre Indchiffrable
- The Mechanism of Secrecy
- Cracking the Enigma
- The Language Barrier
- Alice and Bob Go Public
- Pretty Good Privacy
- A Quantum Leap into the Future
- The Cipher Challenge
- Further Reading
- Picture Credits