Newly showing up in bookstores, “Unsolved” by Craig Bauer will likely appeal to a wide audience — didn’t ALL of us math-lovers at some time play with cryptograms as a kid… and many carried that interest into adulthood. And even many others, without a direct interest in math, carry a fascination with the mystery, game-playing, and intrigue of ciphers.
This is a 500+ page imposing volume from Princeton University Press. Though I’m not particularly fascinated by cryptography in general, I found the chapters on some of the most famous/familiar cases (the Voynich Manuscript, the Zodiac killer, the Cicada internet ciphers) quite gripping. There’s hardly any actual math in the volume, but of course solving cryptographic messages is very much an activity of thinking mathematically, so I feel justified to speak of the book in the popular math category, and don’t doubt mathematicians will find it interesting (the author is a mathematician himself).
Included are a few ciphers that have been solved, as examples, but the book very much concentrates on UNsolved ones. So for those who like working on such things there’s loads of work/play here (and the volume has an associated website for even more followup; also toward book’s end the author casually mentions the possibility of an eventual 2nd volume coming out). Most of these ciphers were new to me, though I suspect for those really plugged into this subject many will be very well known.
I found myself more engrossed in the contents of the volume than I’d expected because unsolved cryptographic messages (and the minds that create them) are so inherently interesting, and come in so many different forms/contexts; and they stretch across centuries right up to modern times and modern technologies. The book ends with a chapter on potential communication with extraterrestrials, and description of RSA cryptology. Worth noting also, that it is possible some of the ciphers included are hoaxes and utter nonsense, but even figuring that out would require great effort/detective work.
It will be interesting to see if a book like this, offering up these mysteries to a new hive-mind of readers, may produce some solutions in the near future to long-unsolved cases. And if you do solve any of them, the NSA may wish to talk with you about job opportunities ;)
Here are a couple of older YouTube videos of author Bauer speaking on his topic: