Review: The Code Book

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh is a select history of coded communication from the start of recorded history to present day. This ambitious task is not only admirably achieved, it's done so in a way that is understandable and engaging (if you have any interest in the subject). If you're curious about the world of codes, cyphers and how they're broken you'll enjoy this book.

Rated: 5 / 5

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh delivers on its title. Covering the major milestones in codes and cyphers, Singh delivers both contextual narrative and technical detail in interesting and understandable writing. This is no small feat given the material. And at 350 pages (without appendices) in trade paperback format, it's also a fast read. Even faster if you don't care about understanding the nitty-gritty and skip the technical details.

The chapter titles in The Code Book are a bit misleading. In the first chapter, The Cipher of Mary Queen of Scots, we start with the tale how Sir Francis Walsingham, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (the "Virgin Queen") used code breaking to unquestionably convict Mary, Queen of Scots, of treason. However, Singh quickly digresses, filling in the history of code making and breaking up to that point in time. Far from a bait and switch, this narrative story telling technique helps keep the material from getting dry.

Following chapters bring us forward in history where Singh describes the significant advances in cryptography accompanied by context and story. There are names known only to crypto-geeks, then there are the more known names like Charles Babbage and Alan Turing. And every now and then we get an interesting curiosity like tales of how Victorian lovers sent secret messages through classified ads, coded treasure maps in the American west, and the cipher used in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventures of the Dancing Men. Reaching current times Singh presents a great primer of cryptography in the current age describing public key cryptography, RSA, and the evolving quantum cryptography. Many people are familiar with the PGP encryption program, it get's a chapter all it's own.

There is a one chapter digression into languages. It starts, innocently enough, with the Navaho code talkers of the second world war, then moves into the understanding of a number of other ancient languages. While the high points of this discussion were interesting it was the one place where I found the details too much. This was the only chapter of the book I found myself skimming.

The Code Book is perfect for readers who want some technical understanding of cryptography with their historical perspective. Singh's explanations of complex topics are understandable, and his narrative is both interesting and enjoyable. For the most part his choice of technical detail and storytelling strikes a nice balance, providing both a mental break between the thinking bits thinking and giving the all important historical context around the mechanics. In other words, this book reads well even with the technical detail! If I could read only one book on cryptography, this is the one.

1 comment

Helen wrote 11 years 7 weeks ago

Navaho talking code

If you want the whole code you can find it in The Pocket Dangerous Book For Boys, Conn Iggulden & Hal Iggulden, HarperCollins, 2008; pp42-49.

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