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Non-Fiction Books Part 2 - Popular Science

I thought that for this, I would try to explain and illustrate my love of puzzles and codes. As bizarre as it may be to admit to liking maths puzzles over, say, crosswords, I like working things out rather than either knowing the answer or being able to guess the solution. I suppose that I ought to concentrate on cryptic ones, but they rely on a certain intuition, and that spark eludes me more often than not. (I do have a very embarrassing secret – I cannot do the standard small puzzle in the Sun – I just do not think on a wavelength that is in any way similar to the person who compiles it. It really is most frustrating.)

So, where to start? Well, The Code Book by Simon Singh is a favourite of mine. Since my initial review, I have re-read it and found it no less fascinating for repeating the exercise. Not only is there detail aplenty on the codes and ciphers themselves, there is also the historical detail that necessitated the breaking of that code, and the implications that follow to the present day for all of us.

Hieroglyphs are one of the topics covered in The Code Book, but a more extensive account is available in The Keys of Egypt – The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs by Lesley and Roy Adkins. This is the story of Jean-Francois Champollion, a self-educated linguist who dedicated himself to deciphering the puzzling language. He is now regarded as the father of Egyptology and as Conservator of the Egyptian collection for the Louvre Museum was responsible for the purchase of a collection of Egyptian antiquities opened to the public in 1827. That he accomplished this is incredible given the Napoleonic political turmoil in France at this time.

Napoleon also features in the story of George Scovell, the Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, by Mark Urban. This is part of the Wellington vs. Napoleon saga, with Napoleon believing his codes to be secure, enciphered as they were with the Great Paris Cipher, and Wellington charging a talented but undervalued George Scovell to break them.

One of my favourite topics is that of Enigma, and the definitive book on this is Enigma – The Battle for the Code by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. This is loosely centred on Bletchley Park and the exploits of the codebreakers but also the wider group of people and events which enabled the code to be broken, such as the seizure of the marine code books. Reading this and feeling the desperation as large numbers of merchant ships are hunted by U-Boats is quite something. The qualification of the statement that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war is perfectly understandable when you read this book.

In tandem with the breaking of military codes, comes the generation of codes for agents in occupied territory. This was recommended to me by a lovely man who gave us the tour at Bletchley Park on a freezing cold day in March. Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks is just incredible. The film about Violette Szabo, Carve Her Name with Pride was on TV last weekend and I made a point of watching it as I had never seen it before. The poem that she used as her code, “The life that I have”, attributed initially to an anonymous poet, turned out to be by Leo Marks working in his capacity as code maker for the Special Operations Executive. This is an autobiography and as such, is so personal in telling, that it makes for an absolutely compelling narrative.

On a purely mathematical note, Fermat’s Last Theorem, also by Simon Singh, is the story concerning the complicated proof of a seemingly simple mathematical equation, and the demand for the expansion of maths that drove the requirement for this proof. This sounds a bit dry, but really it is not, because it deals with the people obsessed with finding the answer to Fermat’s statement, which he claimed to have found in 1637, but which eluded mathematicians until 1995.

You do not need to be able to do the maths to be able to enjoy these stories, they are essentially about people with a special need or interest who go on to achieve what they may not have believed possible at the beginning of their trek. It really is incredible what people can do when they put their mind to it, accompanied by a lot of years of dedication. I am in awe of any person so single minded, it reminds me that I really do have the attention span of a goldfish.

Chrissi - 31st October 2010

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