The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: understanding

What we don't know drives us

To understand why amateur and professional cryptanalysts alike have not given up on the Beale ciphers after hundreds of years, the reader must refer back to a quotation in the beginning of The Code Book. Singh so appropriately referenced John Chadwick in saying, "The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature."

I believe the intrigue behind the Beale Ciphers is not as much motivated by the promise of literal tons of gold, but by the natural desire to discover the unknown. The prospect of an unbreakable code, that has duped some of the brightest minds of the past century, not only challenges, but insults those who feel the inclination towards discovery. It is the push for a higher understanding and a greater knowledge.

I experienced similar feelings at young age. As I was riding the subway in New York City on vacation with my family many years ago, I realized I could not understand anything being said around me. The car was packed with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and the melting pot of tongues fascinated, as well as frustrated me. I had a desire to listen and understand. While none of what was being said around me were actual secrets, they were to my english only vocabulary.

I believe the reason I choose to study languages in school, is the same driving force behind cryptanalysts pursuit of the elusive Beale Ciphers. To some ignorance is bliss, but to most of us it is a constant nagging of what we lack in understanding.





Understanding: From Past to Present

It is no surprise that cryptography and cryptanalysis require at least a basic, and in most cases an elevated, understanding of mathematics, statistics, and linguistics. Back in the time before cryptography had been developed, such understanding was minimal if anything, and hence it is no surprise that cryptography was as well. As time passed, scholars in these civilizations began to unlock the secrets of cryptanalysis, but it was not until the civilization as a whole had grasped these concepts of math, statistics, and linguistics that cryptanalysis could be really put to good use.

Ever since then, all advanced civilizations have emerged with these basic understandings that we take for granted. Unlike in the time when cryptanalysis was first appearing, the average citizen in most of the modern world can read, can do simple math, and has a basic understanding of statistics. These are the minimal skills required to understand cryptography, and thus it is no surprise that even an amateur of today's world can understand and work with the advanced cryptography that existed back in the earliest civilizations. As we have seen, college students can easily grasp basic substitution ciphers with relative ease, and these basics do not even require the understanding of math and statistics - purely an understanding of linguistics at its most basic form. Thus, the application of frequency analysis seems like an obvious and easy step for a young cryptologist in today's world, whereas when it was first invented, it seemed like a break through that would (and did) change how man viewed cryptography forever.

At the core, an amateur today is as good as a skilled cryptologist hundreds of years ago because today's civilization has a minimum understanding that surpasses the understanding of older civilizations by huge strides. We all have a better understanding of the skills required, which allows us to grasp the advanced methods significantly quicker and at a younger age than was ever imaginable. It is no surprise that a highly advanced method of the past is a commonly used technique today when you consider the differences in understanding between the past and the present.

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