Our favorite quotes from “The Code Book” by Simon Singh

“The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature; even the least curious mind is roused by the promise of sharing knowledge withheld from others. Some are fortunate enough to find a job which consists in the solution of mysteries, but most of us are driven to sublimate this urge by the solving of artificial puzzles devised for our entertainment. Detective stories or crossword puzzles cater for the majority; the solution of secret codes may be the pursuit of a few.”

John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (from the book intro)

Codebreakers are linguistic alchemists, a mystical tribe attempting to conjure sensible words out of meaningless symbols.

If a nation believes that it is wrong to read the messages of others, then it also begins to believe that others will not read its own messages, and it does not see the necessity for fancy cipher machines. 

“The Black Chamber, bolted, hidden, guarded, sees all, hears all. Though the blinds are drawn and the windows heavily curtained, its far-seeking eyes penetrate the secret confidence chambers at Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris, Geneva, Rome. Its sensitive ears catch the faintest whisperings in the foreign capitals of the world.” 

Herbert Yardley

At different times over the last two thousand years, cryptographers have believed that the monoalphabetic cipher, the polyalphabetic cipher and machine ciphers such as Enigma were all unbreakable.

In each of these cases the cryptographers were eventually proved wrong, because their claims were based merely on the fact that the complexity of the ciphers outstripped the ingenuity and technology of cryptanalysts at one point in history. With hindsight, we can see that the cryptanalysts would inevitably figure out a way of breaking each cipher, or developing technology that would break it for them. 

If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps adversity is the mother of cryptanalysis. 

It’s time for cryptography to step out of the shadows of spies and the military, and step into the sunshine and be embraced by the rest of us.

Listen to the episode now for more quotes and our discussion of “The Code Book”! iHeartRadio / Spotify / Google Music / Apple Podcasts / MP3

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