The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: unsolved

Mount Everest

George Mallory was a British mountaineer who was the first person to climb Mount Everest. Famously when he was asked why he decided to climb Mount Everest he replied “Because it’s there.” The sake of discovery for the sake of discovery. Humanity is incredibly advanced and throughout the long history of civilization, countless hours have been poured into almost every task. Becoming the first person to do anything, to discover something new is a very clear and distinct motivation. Similarly, which is why people approach famously unsolved problems in mathematics. When I first discovered the 3n+1 conjecture I knew that hundreds of mathematicians which were all much more educated that I had tried it and failed. Without any hope of discovering anything new I still tried a couple of times to think about the conjecture differently simply because there is always hope. Similarly people still attempt the Beale ciphers simply because they wish to try and do something no one has done before. Another interesting motivation is the new technique needed to solve this cipher. This is analogous to the Riemann hypothesis. Many people erroneously believe that proving the hypothesis will revolutionize the world and lead to teleportation or discoveries of new technologies. The importance of the conjecture comes in making it, in fact there are many papers written which simply assume it to be true. The reason why there are still so many attempting to prove it is because after all of the discovering techniques have been tried endlessly, still the problem remains. Solving it would require a completely new technique which would in fact revolutionize at least mathematics. Similarly cryptography could change forever.

Unsolved Codes and Ciphers

While exploring Elonka Dunin's website, I came across her list of "Famous Unsolved Codes and Ciphers."  I thought that this section was particularly interesting because we have read about some of the ciphers or codes in class, and it fascinates me that despite the copious amount of technological and historical resources that we have at our hands, impenetrable ciphers and codes still exist.

Elonka ranked the unsolved codes and ciphers based on their "fame," which she determined by how many times they appeared in articles or how many "hits" they had on Google.  The first cipher she listed was the Beale Cipher, which we read about in The Code Book by Simon Singh.  The Beale Ciphers include three documents that detail the location of a secret treasure, which according to Singh is worth $20 million by today's standards.  One of the papers has been solved, which is how knowledge of this hidden treasure first came about; however, the other two papers, which apparently hold the secret to the treasure's location, remain unsolved.

We discussed in class how despite the Beale cipher's impenetrability, its mystery provides incredible intrigue for cryptographers.  The desire to crack the cipher will live on for some time.  Elonka says on her website that there have been many "claimed solutions" (which she provides a link to), as well as speculation that the entire thing is a hoax.  Both were points brought up in class, and I thought it was really interesting to see firsthand accounts, provided by Elonka, of individuals attempting to break the cipher.

At the bottom of the page, Elonka also includes a list of "Famous Unsolved Codes That Have Since Been Solved."  It is fascinating that codes and ciphers that were once determined impenetrable were later solved.  I believe that this is the reason why many still have hope for ciphers such as the Beale Cipher.  If Edgar Allen Poe's Cryptographic Challenge ciphers were broken after 150 years, why can't the Beale Cipher?

What is it all worth?

The Beale Ciphers have remained unsolved for over a hundred years, yet thousands of people have tried to interpret its hidden meaning.  The code has never been cracked due to a very complex number cipher as well as the possibility that the cipher text has been altered, making it forever impossible to crack.  The main reason that people would persist in trying to solve the cipher was for the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”  The “pot of gold” literally was a stockpile of gold worth over $20 million, found by Beale and his crew.  Even now, when there is almost no chance of the treasures remaining undisturbed, scholars continue to work on trying to break the Beale ciphers.  These people are not in search of monetary gain, but instead a challenge to attempt to complete.

Image: "Puzzle," Ryan Amos, Flickr (CC)

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén