Cryptography

The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Temptation and Treasure

Although thousands of intelligent, well-trained people have attempted to break the Beale ciphers, they remain a mystery. However, the defeats of the past do not deter the many people who still try to crack the code. Some of these people are driven by the thought of the treasure buried by Beale years ago. A potential reward of $20 million can be highly motivating. For most, though, it is likely more than that—after all, trying to break an unbreakable code is sort of terrible as a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, it is the tale itself that is the draw. A mysterious stranger, buried treasure, coded notes—it all reads like an adventure story, and that’s something people want to be a part of.  We are surrounded by stories like this our whole lives, and as children we play at being pirates following a map to the buried chest of gold. Attempting to solve the Beale ciphers makes this childhood game a reality.

Additionally, some cryptographers reason that someone has to eventually come up with a solution—so why not them? We often think that we will be able to be the one who solves a problem even if we’ve seen many people fail at the same task. This can be commonly seen in simple everyday tasks. If one person in a group tries to open a door and gives up, saying it’s locked or stuck, often others will test the handle for themselves. Even if they don’t consciously realize it, they believe that they will be able to do better than the first person—somehow if they jiggle the handle differently or apply enough pressure the door will open for them. The Beale ciphers are a locked door behind which lies the answer to a hundred-year-old mystery. It’s just too much to resist.

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2 Comments

  1. Felix Tiet

    I agree strongly with Marianna's post, and I think the main reason people continue to attempt to crack the Beale ciphers revolves around the possibility of fame and fortune. The process of cracking the ciphers can be similarly compared to gambling; decrypting small groups of words or phrases leads to a rush of euphoria and excitement, urging the cryptanalyst to continue in their pursuit of cracking the cipher. This is akin to winning small sums of money playing poker or slot machines. The promise of these small victories urges the gambler to continue playing. However, after toiling and wasting away months or even years, and finally realizing some assumptions were made incorrectly and no real progress has been made, some cryptanalysts may feel extremely frustrated and disappointed, similar to those who lose large sums of money in the casino. Not only do they lose their winnings, but they lose most of the money they came with too.
    Yet these setbacks may only serve to further urge cryptanalysts on. Some may view it as the ultimate challenge - the last step in reaching their dreams. Cracking the ciphers would be similar to earning a world record. No other person in the world has been able to do it, and achieving this impossible feat would create a legacy that others could only dream of.

  2. yanrong

    I find this post interesting because it not only talks about how the obvious fame and money continuously attract people to solve the Beale cipher, but also how the mysteriousness of the cipher and the mindsets come into the play when one attempts to break the cipher that has remained unbroken for more than a century.

    Marianna suggests that people often think they will be the one who solves the problem even though they’ve seen many others fail at the same task. It does happen a lot and I think the fact that not only experts but also amateurs would attempt the cipher is quite interesting . Most people do believe they are more intelligent than average population and people around them. Also, there is a tendency for people to attribute others’ failure to internal factors and to downplay the situational factors. In this case, amateurs might still attempt to solve the Beale cipher because they believe those experts might have failed because of lack of creativity, persistence or luck, which they might have, and downplay the fact that the cipher itself might just be unattainable. On the other hand, people might realize it is almost impossible for them to solve the ciphers, but think why not still try? After all, this is Beale cipher and no one “expects” them to solve it. And for those who attempted and didn’t break the cipher, the mysterious story behind the Beale cipher just provides a perfect reason for them to wonder: hmm, maybe it’s just a hoax and there isn’t anything behind the door.

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