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After having read Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang it is inevitable that one would go on to read The Code Book too. As the name suggests the book is about the history and evolution of the science of encryption. Apart from being a difficult subject, cryptography can come across as boring and lackluster. But Simon Singh knows how to treat his audience well. The Code Book takes its reader on to a roller coaster ride in to the wonderland of cryptography. In the book Mr. Singh chronicles the development of the science of cryptography and crypt-analysis from the times of ancient Romans and Egyptians all the way to our current times and quantum cryptography. During the course he records all the important events and hallmarks in the history of cryptography. The effect cryptography has had on the lives, wars, liberty and the geopolitical landscape of our times is described in a revealing way.
The Code Book begins with the Romans involvement with early forms of cryptography. Julius Caesar’s secret military writings are discussed. It distinguishes between cryptography and crypt-analysis. It also elucidates the role of Arabs in the development of crypt-analysis and a few old methods of cipher analysis. It then goes on to discuss the clandestine plot of Mary queen of Scots to assassinate the British Queen Elizabeth. The assassination plot was deciphered by Queen Elizabeth and she had the former beheaded. At its climax, it moves on to the stage of world war 2 and a significant portion of the book is devoted to the developments concerning the deciphering of Germans’ enigma codes. The efforts of Allen Turing and his contemporaries, on both sides, are worth reading.
The author then brings right in to our very own era of so-called modern cryptography. Here the author discusses the evolution of various techniques such as RSA, PGP and public-key cryptography. The author also discusses various philosophical, ethical and moral issues concerning personal privacy in our times. In particular, the discussion on the trade-of between the level of personal privacy and the level of information gathering by the law enforcement agencies is discussed from the point of view of security.
The final chapter concludes by speculating about the future of cryptography and discusses and analyses the potential of quantum cryptography. Here again the author has done a commendable effort to elucidate some of the intricate concepts in quantum physics, specially superposition, and to analyse their relevance with quantum computing and cryptography. Simon Singh has a very inspiring style of writing about popular science. All of his books are written with much lucidity and eloquence. The pace of the plot is fast while not compromising the fine details. A person who opens the book once and set’s off to reading looses track of his/her diurnal chores, looses track of time and would find it hard to close the book before the last page is reached. Anyone who would read The Code Book would fall in love with cryptography.