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September 15, 1999


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Obsessed By Codes and Enigmas

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A P Kamath

The Code Book "I didn't have a chance of going to Oxford or Cambridge to study liberal arts," says Simon Singh. "I grew up in the middle of nowhere in England in a family of Punjabi farmers. With hardly any exposure to British culture, studying science seems to be the natural thing to me."

He is not really complaining. He does not have to complain at all. For Simon Singh, who studied physics at Imperial College (London University) and earned his Ph D in particle physics at the University of Cambridge, is an award-winning science film-maker and author of two acclaimed books with A mathematical background, Fermat's Enigma and The Code Book.

He begins his American tour to promote The Code Book on September 21 and is scheduled to attend book signing at Smithsonian Museum, and at bookstores of such major universities as Princeton and Brown. Several book-signings are arranged at popular bookstores in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

Dr Singh, whose main research was the search for one of the fundamental constituents of matter, the top quark, spent two years at the European Center for Particle Physics in Geneva and published several scientific papers with the UA2 experiment.

After leaving particle physics he taught mathematics and science at schools in India and KwaZulu, South Africa and eventually returned to London in 1990 to join the BBC's science department.

"My greatest joy and challenge is to take science to the people," says Dr Singh, who is in his mid-30s. And naturally, he has written a number of articles in mainstream publications such as The New York Times in the US and for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph in England.

For five years after joining the BBC, he worked on the popular science program, Tomorrow's World. His films covered subjects as diverse as the invention of the everlasting light bulb to the fixing of the Hubble Space Telescope, from cyber crime in New York to the scientific explanation of Italian miracles.

In 1997 he directed the Emmy-nominated documentary Fermat's Last Theorem which aired on the BBC and on PBS as part of the NOVA series. That same year he wrote Fermat's Enigma, an international best-seller, recounting the story of Professor Andrew Wiles and his quest to solve the world's most notorious mathematical problem.

'Vividly recounted.... I strongly recommend this book to anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of what is one of the most important and ill-understood, but oldest, cultural activities of humanity,' wrote legendary physicist Sir Roger Penrose in The New York Times Book Review. 'An excellent and very worthwhile account of one of the most dramatic and moving events of the century.'

The Boston Globe noted:' How great a riddle was Fermat's last theorem? The exploration of space, the splitting of the atom, the discovery of DNA -- unthinkable in Fermat's time -- all were achieved while his Pythagorean proof still remained elusive.'

Simon Singh 'Though [Singh] may not ask us to bring too much algebra to the table, he does expect us to appreciate a good detective story.'

The Wall Street Journal pointed out how much of drama was packed in the book: 'It is hard to imagine a more informative or gripping account of... this centuries-long drama of ingenious failures, crushed hopes, fatal duels, and suicides.'

Dr Singh says he knew the book would appeal to a wide section of readers.

"The book requires some knowledge of mathematics," he says. "But many people who knew little mathematics read it to understand the human passion that drives people to uncover puzzles or make important discoveries." He acknowledges that the vibrant story-telling techniques in the book he learned from the masters of sci-fi writers. "I believe in the story-telling technique," he says.

The book was a best-seller in England for more than three months, and since the hardcover edition published by Walker, a middle-size publishing house in America, sold well, the mass publisher Bantam Books acquired the rights to a slightly revised paperback edition.

His newest book deals with a subject that, for millennia, was the domain of spies, diplomats, and generals but with the advent of the Internet, it has become the concern of the public and businesses.

Dr Singh similarly meets a sharpening public curiosity about secret writing and how codes work.

The storyteller in Dr Singh is very much alive, Publishers Weekly noted in a review.

'Although the quantum-mechanical encryption with which Singh culminates his narrative is challengingly arcane to most except for the math spooks at the National Security Agency,' the influential publication said, 'Singh successfully conveys its essential principles, as he does those of all major ciphering schemes.'

The Code Book offers stimulating reading material not only to scientists and science buffs but also to those who are fascinated with intriguing turns in history. For instance, many people know that codes have decided the fates of empires, countries, and monarchies throughout recorded history.

Dr Singh offers insights into the times of Mary, Queen of Scots who 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 sheet 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 his book.

He traces the evolution of secret writing from ancient Greek military espionage to the frontiers of computer science. "I am fascinated by epic tales of human ingenuity," he says.

Such tales abound in his book.

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 cryptoanalysts and captivated hundreds of treasure hunters.

The book is also filled with stories of unsung heroes or men whose ingenuity and sacrifices were not appreciated.

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 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.

Turing's tragedy was the subject of a fascinating play, Breaking the Code, which was a big hit in England and America. It starred Derek Jacobi.

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.

In the tradition of sci-fi books that take a peak into the future, Dr Singh too weighs the role of codes in future. He explores the possibility of a truly unbreakable code looming large.

He notes that while codemakers and codebreakers have always been in a duel to outwit each other, modern day codemakers have won the battle for now.

But the fate of the war is unknown.

Scientists point out that cryptography, the science of concealing messages, is a cutting edge technology today. The latest breakthroughs may enhance or destroy privacy in the new millennium. As codemakers have to use their technology and wit to safeguard privacy, Dr Singh knows the future offers comforting and scary scenarios.

"As information becomes the world's most valuable commodity," he says, "the economic, political and military fate of nations will depend on the strength of codes."

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:\cipherchallenge.

Simon Singh's Itinerary

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