Book Review: Unsolved! By Craig P. Bauer.

 

Hardcover | 2017 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691167671
624 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 222 halftones. 8 line illus. 17 tables. http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10949.html

Where do I start? This is a headspinning book, filled with secrets that have yet to be revealed. It’s like reading one long cliffhanger with the sure knowledge the sequel that reveals what happens is going to be a long time coming.

First off we get a crash course on how to decipher codes, and indeed in doing so we learn how to create them. We are even given a cipher to break, the author suggesting that we may want to stop reading and have a go “attacking” a problem or two. Then we are into the thick of a mind bending puzzle about the efforts to crack the mysterious writing held in a medieval manuscript.

Along the way we get to know the nuts and bolts, jargon and some of the methods used by cryptographers, my favourite nugget is the oh so apt short hand for basic encoded messages or Monoalphabetic substitution cipher MASC. See? Easy memory hook because it’s just like Mask, it masks the intention!

Now after thoroughly grasping that, I proceeded onwards and got completely turned around when the maths came in. I continued in a mixture of comprehension and incomprehension until we got to the Ancient Ciphers where at least I knew which way was up.

With amazing thoroughness, wit and easy communication the author immerses the reader in the world of Cryptanalysis Remember these are unsolved problems, and so each chapter is highly tantalising as a series of brilliant minds each take a turn at tackling ciphers which in the end remain as enigmatic as their creators originally intended. They truly must rank as some of the best in history, just because they have resisted the efforts of centuries of scientific thought to the present day.

Although all the subjects tackled were equally fascinating in some way or another, I did identify most with the ancient ciphers. It was also very pleasing to see Adrienne Mayor’s Research play a part when it came to “nonsense” words, which I recalled being impressed with in her excellent book on Warrior Women. It is also an excellent surprise to see the Vikings mentioned here. No I wasn’t aware of medieval Norse codes, nor that Caesar used ciphers, or that the Greeks had coded signal systems, but I did know that the Vikings had strong links to the Eastern Roman Empire, which is probably why their ciphers so closely approximate Greek ones.

Did I understand everything I read? No. I’m not mathematical. Did I ever feel lost? Strangely no. The author is good at conveying complex ideas, which when they are not series of equations come across very clearly. There is an almost conversational tone to the book in the way Bauer playfully interacts with the reader, in a way it’s almost like he’s offering all the codebreakers out there the chance to collaborate, or at least take part in the debate.

Do not mistake me, this is a serious look at the facts and methods here. Authored by an expert in cryptanalysis who was a lecturer for the NSA. In short it might well be more than you bargained for, but if this book has taught me anything it is not to take anything at face value. Speaking as a mathematically challenged member of the reading public I nevertheless asset by the 3rd chapter, I was able to detect the presence of a cypher in the images shown of carved stones without looking at the text for explanation. No I didn’t try to crack it, I kept reading! But that proves that Unsolved has the power to educate.

Some of the ciphers here are obviously fresh meat for conspiracy theorists. Indeed some of the code breakers mentioned are highly unscientific in their theories. Yet it’s far from just a jumble of uninspiring theory, as it rarely takes a stance to suppose anything that is not in evidence. Indeed I might go so far as to say that this is a very inspiring book, and will likely engage an active mind more closely than you might think.
I must admit that when I picked up this volume, with its slightly mystic cover design, and immodest weight I at first thought that I wouldn’t like it but if a good mystery is your cup of tea then this is likely to be the most original and absorbing book you will read this year.

Josh.