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

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Ten Great Ideas About Chance - Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms ***

There are few topics that fascinate me as much as chance and probability. It's partly the wonder that mathematics can be applied to something so intangible and also because so often the outcomes of probability are counter-intuitive and we can enjoy the 'Huh?' impact of something that works yet feels so far from common sense.

I think I ought to start by saying what this is isn't. It's definitely not an introductory book - the authors assume that the reader 'has taken a first undergraduate course in probability or statistics'. And though there's an appendix that claims to be a probability tutorial for those who haven't got this background, it's not particularly reader-friendly - in theory I knew everything in the appendix, but I still found parts of it near-impossible to read.

As for the main text, if you pass that first criterion, my suspicion is that, like me, you will find parts utterly fascinating and other parts pretty much incomprehensible. Th…