Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mathematician Cracks 200-year-old Presidential Code

36-year-old Princeton, NJ mathematician, Lawren Smithline, cracked a 200-year-old code given to Thomas Jefferson by his coding enthusiast buddy, Robert Patterson.

DS was intrigued by this and I thought I'd bookmark it here for further reading. We were particularly happy that the article mentioned the Center for Communication Research.

The Wall Street Journal article by Rachel Emma Silverman here:

Two Centuries On, a Cryptologist Cracks a Presidential Code
Unlocking This Cipher Wasn't Self-Evident; Algorithms
and Educated Guesses

For more than 200 years, buried deep within Thomas Jefferson's correspondence and papers, there lay a mysterious cipher -- a coded message that appears to have remained unsolved. Until now.

The cryptic message was sent to President Jefferson in December 1801 by his friend and frequent correspondent, Robert Patterson, a mathematics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. President Jefferson and Mr. Patterson were both officials at the American Philosophical Society -- a group that promoted scholarly research in the sciences and humanities -- and were enthusiasts of ciphers and other codes, regularly exchanging letters about them.

In this message, Mr. Patterson set out to show the president and primary author of the Declaration of Independence what he deemed to be a nearly flawless cipher. "The art of secret writing," or writing in cipher, has "engaged the attention both of the states-man & philosopher for many ages," Mr. Patterson wrote. But, he added, most ciphers fall "far short of perfection."

To Mr. Patterson's view, a perfect code had four properties: It should be adaptable to all languages; it should be simple to learn and memorize; it should be easy to write and to read; and most important of all, "it should be absolutely inscrutable to all unacquainted with the particular key or secret for decyphering."

Mr. Patterson then included in the letter an example of a message in his cipher, one that would be so difficult to decode that it would "defy the united ingenuity of the whole human race," he wrote.

There is no evidence that Jefferson, or anyone else for that matter, ever solved the code. But Jefferson did believe the cipher was so inscrutable that he considered having the State Department use it, and passed it on to the ambassador to France, Robert Livingston.
The cipher finally met its match in Lawren Smithline, a 36-year-old mathematician. Dr. Smithline has a Ph.D. in mathematics and now works professionally with cryptology, or code-breaking, at the Center for Communications Research in Princeton, N.J., a division of the Institute for Defense Analyses. (link mine)

Read more here. And be sure to check out the Interactive Graphics tab for an intriguing look on how one brilliant man coded it and another other solved it.

Another Jefferson-related coding link here.

1 comment:

  1. That is so cool! I did a bit of cryptology at uni (Comp Sci degree) and found it fascinating.


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