Cracking the Code

by | Nov 4, 2022

Not being a huge fan of secret codes and cryptography, I did not open this book, “Can You Crack the Code? A Fascinating History of Ciphers and Cryptography,” by Ella Schwartz, (illustrated by Lily Williams), for several months after I got it.

How would a book like this engage me? I wondered. Wouldn’t it be either confusing or too theoretical? I am happy to report that this book was neither. Schwartz’s anecdote- and fun-fact-filled book was pitched at the perfect level for both young readers and, also, me.

The book is basically about how to keep secrets safe, especially when people are constantly trying to discover them. The author presents a wide range of engaging tales and sidebars about situations involving code-making and -breaking. As I read I often caught myself thinking, “hunh, I didn’t know that!”

Whether the reader is interested in history, mysteries, or solving puzzles, this book has all that and more.

 Schwartz’s brief and clear explanations of the role of cryptography and coded messages in history, including the imprisonment (and later execution) if Mary Queen of Scots by Queen Elizabeth I, and the struggles to break the nearly unbreakable code of the Nazi’s Enigma coding machine are engaging and well paced.

Readers who prefer mystery — especially unsolved ones — will enjoy the story of Thomas Jefferson Beale’s buried treasure and the codes he left behind to find it, and the story of the Voynich Manuscript, a 600-year-old, 240-page illustrated book written in a still-indecipherable code.

After learning about various types of ciphers, such as the Polybius cipher, the pigpen cipher (my favorite!) and the Copiale cipher, the reader gets to decode messages using those techniques. The challenges appear to me, at least, to be at just the right level: not too hard, not too easy. I could imagine a reader using some of these ciphers with their friends.

Several of the sidebars address the special challenges during WWII for women code-breakers (they couldn’t be engaged or married) and African-Americans (during WWII a group of 30 African Americans within the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service helped decode foreign messages but were so segregated that the white people didn’t even know the African Americans were in the building).

As Schwartz writes, “[This] group of cryptanalysts worked tirelessly to keep America safe, but they were forbidden from using the same lunchroom, lounges, or bathrooms as their white coworkers. [Their work was] vital to the government but they were virtually invisible.”

Schwartz also gives props to the Navajo Code Talkers, who used their language to transmit important messages that were critical to the war effort.

Codebreaking ties in, not surprisingly, to today’s needs for cybersecurity. But Schwartz takes the reader there only toward the end of the book. The first three fourths are full of intriguing stories, like the mystery of the buried treasure mentioned above, the Enigma Machine, and Kryptos, a sculpture at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, VA., that holds a secret message that has confounded codebreakers for more than 20 years.  Again, each topic is addressed in an introductory manner, just perfect for one’s first taste of ciphers and cryptography.

The chapter on prime numbers and the role they play in cybersecurity today really intrigued me. The sidebar on the secret (enormous) prime number that is so illegal that if you have it in your possession you could go to jail made me really sit up and scratch my head. It turns out that number is the encryption key that unlocks the ability make copies of a commercial DVD. Hunh, I didn’t know that!

Ultimately, a couple points really resonated with me. The first is, you don’t have to be a math genius to be a code-maker or -breaker, though it helps if you like to solve puzzles. Also, Schwartz provides many examples of codes that continue to stump the world. The concept that smart people fail at solving puzzles is an encouraging message.

This book made the promise to introduce readers to the “fascinating” story of ciphers and cryptography and the author made good on her promise. This is a book any young reader will enjoy.  

This review first ran in the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette in 2019

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