Xing's Reviews > The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

The Code Book by Simon Singh
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's review
Aug 27, 10

Very much enjoyed the balance between practical applications and theoretical concepts. One of the foremost themes in this book is 'necessity is the mother of invention'- Simon places mathematical, nuts-and-bolts descriptions of various coding systems firmly within the context of history and emphasises the driving evolutionary force behind their development and the personalities and contributions of people involved.
At the same time he delves deeply into scientific principles behind not only the processes of encryption and decryption, but also the characteristics of the media used to generate, transmit, and decode messages, allowing the reader to appreciate how limitations in physics, math, and technology offer users temporary security until further breakthroughs usher in a new wave of creativity and frenzied competition.

It's always funny to think how cutting-edge technology in one era becomes relegated to children's games in the next- codes are only as strong as their weakest link- even when they rely on a slew of different techniques and levels of encryption. It's especially fascinating to realise how minds of different individuals come up with the same ideas and tap similar veins of inspiration- imagine being given a coded text, and applying as many methods of code breaking that can occur to you to it, eventually hitting upon the very one that works. It seems such an incredibly unlikely thing that a complex formula employed by one person, with its idiosyncrasies, should yield to the efforts of a few dedicated code breakers- it's really a testament to our shared biological makeup. Psychological states make such a huge difference as well- when you believe that a puzzle's inherently solvable, or can be cracked reasonably easily, that confidence goes a long way. Side note: the National Scottish Museum has a real Enigma machine on display! I made a sketch of it during my last visit.

I loved the descriptions of how knowledge is withheld from the public domain during war time or by military organisations. As with other research areas that get funded by places like DARPA, it's rather annoying but tremendously thrilling to think of how in reality the 'leading edge' of technology is almost certainly far ahead of one's conception of it..some of it hopefully to be revealed and appreciated within one's lifetime.
Very importantly, the book examines current methods of encryption, their strengths and underlying assumptions, differences in the standards imposed by governments, the probability of their being breached in the future, and exciting (to me insanely esoteric) outlines of how quantum computing might offer the means to factor numbers in the order of 10 to the power of 308 (used in RSA public-key cryptography for important banking transactions).
The only bit I found disagreeable was on quantum money, as I've virtually no understanding of how it could be implemented, e.g. how could photons be 'trapped' and then released to be measured through Polaroid filters? I've been reading a bit about how photons have a 50% probability of passing through slits angled obliquely to their spins (in Brian Greenes's The Fabric of the Cosmos), and the whole concept sounds fishy and impenetrable to me. Surely there's something behind the 50% phenomenon that's significant to understanding how photons behave? Anyway, that's just one of too many unexplained assumptions in that section to convince the lay person.
Another side note: I happened read Skype's info page about their digital encryption system (having read The Code Book, I was able to understand the gist of it). Here's the link for anyone who's interested:

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