Codebreaker II – prize book review
Sarah Flannery's In Code
For all of you grappling with our second Codebreaker competition, here's some inspiration, courtesy of Sarah Flannery, author of our book prize In Code: A Mathematical Journey.
Sarah shot to prominence in 1999 when, at the age of 16, her work in developing ideas for an encryption algorithm for public key cryptography earned her the title of Ireland's young scientist of the year. The story was seized upon by the media who, to her considerable embarrassment, hailed her as a "genius".
The Cayley-Purser algorithm, which Sarah developed after a paper given to her during a work placement with security firm Baltimore Technologies, offered a potential way of developing a far more efficient and faster method of securing data on the Internet.
With going into too much technical detail, the algorithm Sarah worked on represented a fresh approach because it was based on the maths of matrix multiplication, rather than that of factorising large numbers used in schemes like RSA.
In the book, it's explained how her development of the Cayley-Purser Algorithm led Sarah to trips to Singapore, Milan and Stockholm on speaking engagements - and entrepreneurs' promises of millions in profits from her work.
Her celebrity status led to an approach to feature in adverts from Pepsi Cola (something she and her parents turned down) and a write-up which described her as Smart Spice in the Spice Girls' pop magazine.
Sarah decided against patenting and commercialising her discovery, preferring to share it with the encryption community and this decision provoked heated debate, until a method of attacking the Cayley-Purser algorithm came to light.
Attempts to patch the algorithm were unsuccessful but Sarah's had still contributed much new work to cryptographic research, and helped inject fresh enthusiasm into the subject of cryptography.
Sarah's own infectious enthusiasm for mathematics (in particular number theory) and its application in encryption, is very much in evidence in the book.
Sarah, the oldest of five children, comes across as a level-headed, industrious, sport-loving and intelligent young woman with a nice line in self-depreciation humour, and not the calculating machine her achievements might imply.
After explaining the roots of Sarah's interest in maths (which stem from puzzles set by her lecturer father David on a blackboard in the family's kitchen in Co. Cork), the book explains the ideas of number theory which have laid the foundation for modern-day cryptography.
There's puzzles throughout this (and answers in the back of the book) which lead the reader to a better understanding of the complexity of the project undertaken by Sarah.
So there you go, if you crack our Codebreaker II comp you can look forward to tackling the puzzles in Sarah's book. Good luck! ®