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De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich manuscript. (One of the few parts that is disappointing is the Voynich section, as the author seems heavily influenced by the Bax interpretation and doesn't give any weight to the perfectly reasonable idea that it's a fake, merely saying 'others who have failed to decode the manuscript merely believe it is a hoax.') 

You have to have some interest in cryptography to get the most out of this book. Unlike  Simon Singh's Code Book, which takes a more narrative approach, this title is a whole collection of different cipher techniques, each as a separate little article. However, if you do have that interest, this is a delightful little book because it adds in so many different cipher techniques. It would be both an ideal introduction to ciphers to a mathematically minded teenager and a good way to expand your knowledge if you're an adult who sees the fun to be had from ciphers, but doesn't know much detail. 


Review by Brian Clegg


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