Skip to main content

Unsolved! - Craig Bauer ****

This chunky book proved to be an unexpected pleasure. Craig Bauer introduces the reader to a host of mostly unsolved ciphers, from historical greats to the latest computer-derived puzzles. Although he tells the complete story of each cipher he deals with before moving onto the next, the chapters are cleverly structured so he is able to introduce us to increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for hiding messages - and techniques for attempting to break them.

We start with the Voynich manuscript, a whole book, probably from the fifteenth or sixteenth century in cipher form - though as Bauer points out, some believe it's a meaningless hoax. After a dabble with ancient ciphers, we next discover that Elgar was a cipher fan. I'd heard about his playful concealment in the Enigma Variations, but wasn't aware of the Dorabella cipher, which remains unsolved to this day. (Bauer also takes us through Elgar's own workings to solve a public cipher challenge, which is fascinating.) Then we zoom forward to the infamous Zodiac killings and their associated ciphers (the inspiration of the Dirty Harry movie), plus a number of other true crime stories with an unsolved cipher involved.

I was a bit wary about this section, as I'm no fan of true crime, but the cipher element made the whole thing much more of an intriguing mystery, where the details of the crimes were necessary for cipher's context. We then go on to a whole host of other ciphers, from attempts to use them to prove communication from beyond the grave to a whole world of 'challenge ciphers' I wasn't aware of. Here, the public is challenged to deal with a cipher, some via convoluted communications such as the enigmatic Cicada 3301 challenges which spanned websites and physical locations. And, of course, there is the CIA's famous Kryptos sculpture, still partially unsolved.

The book does have some minor irritations. Bauer can't resist exclamation marks - it's not just in the title, but almost every page seems to have them. (I can't help but wonder if there's a cipher involved, there are so many.) He also does tend to give us just a bit too much detail in the background information. So, for example, when tracing the early years of the Voynich manuscript, we are told too much dull detail, transcribing letters about it that don't add much to the narrative.

There's also an inherent difficulty in the topic, in that most of the ciphers covered are still unsolved, as the title suggests. This means that many of the stories in the book don't have an ending - or rather they all have the same ending 'We don't know yet...' which gets wearing after a while. It's fine that some of these can be seen as challenges for the reader, if so inclined - but it makes the book work a little less well. Many of the best bits of Unsolved! were where at least a partial solution was reached. The book might have worked better if Bauer had gone for more of a mix of solved and unsolved ciphers, so we could have had regular 'aha' moments during the journey. 

Despite the many mysteries left hanging, though, this was a thoroughly engaging read. Whether you have the patience and fortitude to have a go at cracking ciphers yourself, or, like me, are happy to be impressed with the ingenuity but would never put the time and effort in, there are some cracking (sorry) stories and surprises here. What else can I say, but TIEL TKIA CEOB HSXL B!SN ENOC

Hardback:  

Kindle 



Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…