Secret codes are perennially, and universally, fascinating. Remember using lemon-juice to write invisible messages? What about the thrill of inventing your own private language? Something in the idea of occult information appeals to the 007 that lurks in every psyche.
Author and TV producer Simon Singh has now taken this symptomatically human trait and turned it into a TV series tied in to this entertaining book. In form, the first half of The Science of Secrecy is a zippy history of codes and ciphers (Spartan stick-ciphers, Roman shift-ciphers, a whole tradition of Muslim cipherologists), married to a closer analysis of notable code crackings of the past. Singh ably tells the fascinating tale of how the encoded assassination plans of Mary Queen of Scots were decrypted by Queen Elizabeth's embryonic MI5.
The second half concentrates on 20th-century code cracking. To judge by Singh, the Brits won both the Great War and the Second World War because of expert code busting. In 1914-18 it was by deciphering an incriminating German telegram, which brought America militarily onside; in 1939-45 it was by employing the most brilliant of crypto-boffins at Bletchley Park, who, via the Colossus decryption computer, ensured the Allies were always able to second guess the Nazi war machine.
The final section of the book, which describes attempts to encrypt--and decrypt--the Web, underlines why codes are of crucial topicality. Should vital material on the Net be encoded, or does that infringe free exchange of information, the very essence of cyberspace? Singh offers a readable, lucid and well informed take on this, much as he tackles every other subject in his diverting and illuminating book. --Sean Thomas [via]