Skip to main content

Unsolved! - Craig Bauer ****

This chunky book proved to be an unexpected pleasure. Craig Bauer introduces the reader to a host of mostly unsolved ciphers, from historical greats to the latest computer-derived puzzles. Although he tells the complete story of each cipher he deals with before moving onto the next, the chapters are cleverly structured so he is able to introduce us to increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for hiding messages - and techniques for attempting to break them.

We start with the Voynich manuscript, a whole book, probably from the fifteenth or sixteenth century in cipher form - though as Bauer points out, some believe it's a meaningless hoax. After a dabble with ancient ciphers, we next discover that Elgar was a cipher fan. I'd heard about his playful concealment in the Enigma Variations, but wasn't aware of the Dorabella cipher, which remains unsolved to this day. (Bauer also takes us through Elgar's own workings to solve a public cipher challenge, which is fascinating.) Then we zoom forward to the infamous Zodiac killings and their associated ciphers (the inspiration of the Dirty Harry movie), plus a number of other true crime stories with an unsolved cipher involved.

I was a bit wary about this section, as I'm no fan of true crime, but the cipher element made the whole thing much more of an intriguing mystery, where the details of the crimes were necessary for cipher's context. We then go on to a whole host of other ciphers, from attempts to use them to prove communication from beyond the grave to a whole world of 'challenge ciphers' I wasn't aware of. Here, the public is challenged to deal with a cipher, some via convoluted communications such as the enigmatic Cicada 3301 challenges which spanned websites and physical locations. And, of course, there is the CIA's famous Kryptos sculpture, still partially unsolved.

The book does have some minor irritations. Bauer can't resist exclamation marks - it's not just in the title, but almost every page seems to have them. (I can't help but wonder if there's a cipher involved, there are so many.) He also does tend to give us just a bit too much detail in the background information. So, for example, when tracing the early years of the Voynich manuscript, we are told too much dull detail, transcribing letters about it that don't add much to the narrative.

There's also an inherent difficulty in the topic, in that most of the ciphers covered are still unsolved, as the title suggests. This means that many of the stories in the book don't have an ending - or rather they all have the same ending 'We don't know yet...' which gets wearing after a while. It's fine that some of these can be seen as challenges for the reader, if so inclined - but it makes the book work a little less well. Many of the best bits of Unsolved! were where at least a partial solution was reached. The book might have worked better if Bauer had gone for more of a mix of solved and unsolved ciphers, so we could have had regular 'aha' moments during the journey. 

Despite the many mysteries left hanging, though, this was a thoroughly engaging read. Whether you have the patience and fortitude to have a go at cracking ciphers yourself, or, like me, are happy to be impressed with the ingenuity but would never put the time and effort in, there are some cracking (sorry) stories and surprises here. What else can I say, but TIEL TKIA CEOB HSXL B!SN ENOC



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …