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The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography [Hardcover]

Simon Singh
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (362 customer reviews)


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Book Description

September 14, 1999 0385495315 978-0385495318 1
Codes have decided the fates of empires, countries, and monarchies throughout recorded history. Mary, Queen of Scots was put to death by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, for the high crime of treason after spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham cracked the secret code she used to communicate with her conspirators. And thus the course of British history was altered by a few sheets of cryptic prose. This is just one link in humankind's evolutionary chain of secret communication, and just one of the fascinating incidents recounted in The Code Book, written by bestselling author Simon Singh.

Combining a superb storyteller's sense of drama and a scientist's appreciation for technical perfection, Singh traces the evolution of secret writing from ancient Greek military espionage to the frontiers of computer science. The result is an epic tale of human ingenuity, with examples that range from the poignant to the peculiar to the world-historical.

There is the case of the Beale ciphers, which involves Wild West escapades, a cowboy who amassed a vast fortune, a buried treasure worth $20 million, and a mysterious set of encrypted papers describing its whereabouts--papers that have baffled generations of cryptanalysts and captivated hundreds of treasure hunters.

A speedier end to a bloody war was the only reward that could be promised to the Allied code breakers of World Wars I and II, whose selfless contributions altered the course of history; but few of them lived to receive any credit for their top-secret accomplishments. Among the most moving of these stories is that of the World War II British code breaker Alan Turing, who gave up a brilliant career in mathematics to devote himself to the Allied cause, only to end his years punished by the state for his homosexuality, while his heroism was ignored. No less heroic were the Navajo code talkers, who volunteered without hesitation to risk their lives for the Allied forces in the Japanese theater, where they were routinely mistaken for the enemy.

Interspersed with these gripping stories are clear mathematical, linguistic, and technological demonstrations of codes, as well as illustrations of the remarkable personalities--many courageous, some villainous, and all obsessive--who wrote and broke them.

All roads lead to the present day, in which the possibility of a truly unbreakable code looms large. Singh explores this possibility, and the ramifications of our increasing need for privacy, even as it begins to chafe against the stated mission of the powerful and deeply secretive National Security Agency. Entertaining, compelling, and remarkably far-reaching, this is a book that will forever alter your view of history, what drives it, and how private that e-mail you just sent really is.

Included in the book is a worldwide Cipher Challenge--a $15,000 award will be given by the author to the first reader who cracks the code successfully. Progress toward the solution will be tracked on The Code Book website.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

People love secrets, and ever since the first word was written, humans have written coded messages to each other. In The Code Book, Simon Singh, author of the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, offers a peek into the world of cryptography and codes, from ancient texts through computer encryption. Singh's compelling history is woven through with stories of how codes and ciphers have played a vital role in warfare, politics, and royal intrigue. The major theme of The Code Book is what Singh calls "the ongoing evolutionary battle between codemakers and codebreakers," never more clear than in the chapters devoted to World War II. Cryptography came of age during that conflict, as secret communications became critical to either side's success.

Confronted with the prospect of defeat, the Allied cryptanalysts had worked night and day to penetrate German ciphers. It would appear that fear was the main driving force, and that adversity is one of the foundations of successful codebreaking.

In the information age, the fear that drives cryptographic improvements is both capitalistic and libertarian--corporations need encryption to ensure that their secrets don't fall into the hands of competitors and regulators, and ordinary people need encryption to keep their everyday communications private in a free society. Similarly, the battles for greater decryption power come from said competitors and governments wary of insurrection. The Code Book is an excellent primer for those wishing to understand how the human need for privacy has manifested itself through cryptography. Singh's accessible style and clear explanations of complex algorithms cut through the arcane mathematical details without oversimplifying. Can't get enough crypto? Try solving the Cipher Challenge in the back of the book--$15,000 goes to the first person to crack the code! --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

In an enthralling tour de force of popular explication, Singh, author of the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, explores the impact of cryptographyAthe creation and cracking of coded messagesAon history and society. Some of his examples are familiar, notably the Allies' decryption of the Nazis' Enigma machine during WWII; less well-known is the crucial role of Queen Elizabeth's code breakers in deciphering Mary, Queen of Scots' incriminating missives to her fellow conspirators plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, which led to Mary's beheading in 1587. Singh celebrates a group of unsung heroes of WWII, the Navajo "code talkers," Native American Marine radio operators who, using a coded version of their native language, played a vital role in defeating the Japanese in the Pacific. He also elucidates the intimate links between codes or ciphers and the development of the telegraph, radio, computers and the Internet. As he ranges from Julius Caesar's secret military writing to coded diplomatic messages in feuding Renaissance Italy city-states, from the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone to the ingenuity of modern security experts battling cyber-criminals and cyber-terrorists, Singh clarifies the techniques and tricks of code makers and code breakers alike. He lightens the sometimes technical load with photos, political cartoons, charts, code grids and reproductions of historic documents. He closes with a fascinating look at cryptanalysts' planned and futuristic tools, including the "one-time pad," a seemingly unbreakable form of encryption. In Singh's expert hands, cryptography decodes as an awe-inspiring and mind-expanding story of scientific breakthrough and high drama. Agent, Patrick Walsh. (Oct.) FYI: The book includes a "Cipher Challenge," offering a $15,000 reward to the first person to crack that code.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1 edition (September 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385495315
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385495318
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (362 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #100,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Singh is an author, science journalist and TV producer. Having completed his PhD at Cambridge he worked from 1991 to 1997 at the BBC producing Tomorrow's World and co-directing the BAFTA award-winning documentary Fermat's Last Theorem for the Horizon series. In 1997, he published Fermat's Last Theorem, which was a best-seller in Britain and translated into 22 languages.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
170 of 176 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Neatly illustrates the impact of encryption on history November 2, 1999
Format:Hardcover
Before Singh's "Code Book" came on the scene, the only other book I knew about is Kahn's "Codebreakers". I don't have the time to read such a large text as Kahn's book, so I was very pleased when this book became available.
Singh has done a very nice job of demonstrating how deep an impact cryptography has on history. He opens the book by recounting Mary Queen of Scots' conspiracy to have Queen Elizabeth murdered and how she attempted to use encryption to cloak her intentions. It was a very exciting way to open the book.
Singh has found the right combination of technical detail, historical detail, and character development.
Singh's explanation of how the German WWII Enigma functioned is exceptional. He made it very easy (and fun) to understand.
Singh's last chapter is also very neat on the subject of quantum cryptography. Though I have a BS in computer science, I'm no physics genius and Singh did a nice job of making (what I consider) difficult physics concepts easy to understand and of showing how they can be applied to modern cryptography.
Although I don't know a thing about "Fermat's last theorem", I've been so pleased with Singh's writing style that I'm considering reading that book also just to see what it is all about.
If you like codes/ciphers and want to read about their impact on history without reading a thousand pages then get this book. You'll be happy you did.
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82 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read and a little more than just codes December 12, 1999
Format:Hardcover
Mr. Singh traces the history of cryptography from its recorded inception in roman times up through current applications. While all of the chapters held my interest it was Mr. Singh's work in chapters 4 through 6 that I feel deserve particular note.
Chapter 4 deals with the war effort at Bletchley Park and the work on the Engima machine. Here Mr.Singh adds an additional dimension by providing some insight into the work of Alan Turning, the development of Colossus, the first (now reported) electronic programmable computer and the unrecognized cryptanalysts who broke Ultra and the other codes of WWII. Chapter 6 brings us up to present day cryptographic issues from RSA and PGP to philosophical issues of personal privacy in modern society with web centric commerce and online book reviews. At each step in the process Singh successfully combines the elements of a technical treatise with a human values and features. For those wanting to go a little further under the hood and look at the processes and algorithms in some of the codes mentioned in the text, several appendices at the end of the book should fill that yearning. I found the book informative and enjoyable to read.
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56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, never boring, ultimately a little light November 17, 2000
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you like to read about how secrets, the protection of and the finding out, have affected and altered the course of history, this is a fun book to read. If you're interested in a very good, enjoyable overview of the history of secrets, this is a good book.
Ultimately, though, it's light. The history of cryptography is enormous, and a book this size can only summarize. If you're into the history, then The Codebreakers by David Kahn is the more definitive work.
If you're more interested in the personal stories of people involved with code making or breaking, there are some excellent works, such as Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks, which give you more detail of particular people or times.
If you're interested in modern-day issues with computer security and encryption, Bruce Schneier has written two outstanding books, one for the programmer and one for the layman, detailing modern cryptographic techniques and security issues.
And if you're interested in a gripping fictional work, they don't come better than The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.
That's not to take away from Singh's book at all. It's extremely enjoyable, and it was a perfect vacation read for me. If you're not seriously into cryptography the way I am, you might not find the above books interesting, but find Singh absolutely fascinating. Recommended to anyone.
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57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling material wrapped in interesting stories March 29, 2000
Format:Hardcover
It took me a while to finding to the time to read this because I was expecting a rather dry book on cryptography. The subject was somewhat interesting to me, but I didn't feel like plodding through a long book on the subject.
Once I started reading I realized The Code Book was totally different. Singh takes you on a tour of the history of cryptography through the history of the world. You will find that cryptography was an unexpected key element in several historical events.
Through the entire history, Singh's writing is exceptionally clear and easy to follow. The material in the book is accessible to all levels of reader -- even those with no knowledge of cryptography.
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smoothly flowing, lots of anecdotes and personalities September 25, 1999
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Not really in any substantive sense a history of cryptography, this book gives one very much the same feeling as if watching a well done television documentary. This is not particularly surprising, as the author works on programs such as PBS' "Nova" in his day job. This makes the book an easy and pleasant read, but it chooses its focus rather oddly, often emphasizing persons and events out of all logical proportion to their real historical significance. In fairness, the author does concede that he is not attempting to write a history of cryptography, as that has already been done comprehensively by others, especially David Kahn ("The Codebreakers," recently reprinted). While Americans are given inappropriately little attention until the chapter on public-key cryptography -- I think William F. Friedman is mentioned once in passing, and Herbert O. Yardley perhaps twice -- the selection of subject matter is a refreshing change from the usual stories that are rehashed over and over in most books on cryptography. It is particularly nice to see the British WWII cryptanalytic efforts at Bletchley Park being given their due, since Bletchley's people such as Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers have had to suffer from their work being kept secret until several years after Kahn's and most of the other principal histories had been written. The acknowledgement of the early Polish effort with German Enigma which made the British effort possible is also comparatively rare, again mostly because of the secrecy which until recently surrounded the matter, but it is likewise long overdue. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking to be my new best friend....
The book got here last week. I haven't been able to put it down. Who thought codes were so interesting? Dealer was timely and great to deal with. Keep me smiling.... Read more
Published 13 days ago by Rene DuFresne
5.0 out of 5 stars I am an engineer and loved it.
I am an engineer and loved it. Enough details to keep the reader interested throughout. It would be good for Simon to write an update, though I'm not so sure of the audience and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by J Mike Surratt
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating History of Cryptography
I thought this book was an extremely fascinating history book. I really appreciated the context of examining early ciphers and code breaking. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Nathan Chan
5.0 out of 5 stars Great insight
I picked up (downloaded) this book as it was referred to in a podcast on the same subject. It's a fantastic history of code breaking and not just the math and "logic" or... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dean Fantastic
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic content and well written
This book was absolutely wonderful. It is not too technical, so it is easy to read and understand without being boring. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Robert L. Nasuti Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book I've Ever Read
I am only half-way through this book but I find this book absolutely fascinating! Not only can you learn about cryptography but you get some very interesting history lessons. Read more
Published 2 months ago by D. Engel
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Singh describes in readable terms the techniques of creating and unraveling codes and cyphers through the centuries. Read more
Published 2 months ago by wrangler
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting
This book is a great introduction to Cryptology. The appendix is filled with systems you can actually use and it was interesting learning about the history of Cryptology.
Published 3 months ago by Nathan
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable read through the history of cyphers
Having read and enjoyed "Fermat's last theorem", I thought I'd read this book. I also liked this one. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Richard Doyle
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Loved every reading every single page. Great book for someone that wants an intro to crypto technologies and ideas. Recommend it highly!
Published 3 months ago by Fu Hok
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