The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies
The clue is in the title…
🙂 🙂 🙂
The book’s subtitle summarises its contents: this is the tale of some of the unsolved ciphers that have baffled experts, sometimes for centuries, and the efforts that have been made to find solutions.
I’m going to start by saying that my relatively low rating is a reflection of the fact that the author’s chosen style drove me nuts, and is therefore entirely subjective. In fact, I think the book is very good – just not for me. Let me start by explaining why and then I can get onto the more positive aspects.
I admit – the clue is in the title, so I should have known the book would annoy me. I really don’t like unsolved mysteries and this book reminded me forcibly of that fact. Part of the ostensible reason for the book is to encourage a wider pool of people to try their hand at solving these ciphers, and I think that’s a fun and interesting idea. However, while I can make a stab at something like the dancing men cipher in Sherlock Holmes – a simple letter substitution – I fear that when higher maths, massive computer power, or knowledge of ancient Greek is required, then it’s well beyond my capacity and my interest flags. From the first chapters, I found I was reading the stories of the ciphers and then skipping most of the stuff about the methodologies of attempts to solve them. I suspect Bauer has explained all the mechanics of it very well for people who are interested and have enough mathematical aptitude to follow along, but sadly that’s not me. Even with the simpler stuff at the beginning, Bauer frequently sets a challenge – say, to solve a group of anagrams – and then doesn’t provide solutions. I found this intensely irritating.
However, what annoyed me much more was Bauer’s decision not to include all the information in the book, but instead to refer the reader frequently to websites. If I wanted to look up unsolved ciphers on the internet, then I would simply google – but if I’m reading a book on the subject, then all relevant information should be on the page. I’m not even an enthusiast for being referred to the notes at the back of books much less being sent off to fire up the laptop. One example was where he tells a story, tells us that the cipher in this case has been solved, doesn’t give the solution but instead gives a web address a zillion characters long. Having carefully keyed it all in, I was taken to a website… in German! OK, so Google translate… nope, still no solution in the body of the post. Presumably it was hidden somewhere in the vast stream of comments on the post, but frankly I had lost the will to live by then. It felt like Bauer was playing games with his readers – fine if you like that sort of thing. I don’t.
On the plus side, a lot of the stories Bauer tells are interesting in their own right even when the ciphers remain unsolved. From ancient Greece to modern murders, ciphers have appeared in the oddest of circumstances – medieval manuscripts, tombstones, personal letters, even taped to the stomach of a murder victim. Sometimes there is doubt whether a piece of gibberish is actually a cipher or simply a piece of gibberish, and Bauer details how experts go about the task of trying to decide.
Spy stories feature, of course, but there are other circumstances when ciphers have been used that I found just as interesting. There are a couple of hidden treasure stories, where the ciphers remain unsolved and the treasure unfound so you might want to grab a spade and start digging. Many people have used ciphers as a means to test whether it’s possible to communicate from beyond the grave, by leaving behind a code that requires a keyword to solve, intending to see if they can then transmit this keyword from the great beyond (so far with no success). Bauer also tells of the way ciphers have been used to send messages out into space as a means of alerting passing aliens to the existence of intelligent life on earth. One has to hope the aliens are better at solving codes than I am… or perhaps we should hope they’re worse since, as Bauer points out, they might have bigger guns and worse attitudes than we do.
The Arecibo message sent into space in 1974. Good luck with solving that, aliens!
I think it says mankind all have extremely long horns and wear very tall top hats, and live in their local McDonald’s. What do you think?
So there’s plenty of good stuff in here, and I’m certain it would work very well for someone who is more interested in the maths side of it and less annoyed by being sent off to websites than I. But for me, there were too many aspects that irritated me to make it an altogether successful read despite finding some of the stories interesting.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Princeton University Press.