Global Math Week: Around the World from Unsolved to Solved

by Craig Bauer

BauerWhat hope do we have of solving ciphers that go back decades, centuries, or even all the way back to the ancient world? Well, we have a lot more hope than we did in the days before the Internet. Today’s mathematicians form a global community that poses a much greater threat to unsolved problems, of every imaginable sort, than they have every faced before.

In my Princeton University Press book, Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies, I collected scores of the most intriguing unsolved ciphers. It’s a big book, in proper proportion to its title, and I believe many of the ciphers in it will fall to the onslaught the book welcomes from the world’s codebreakers, both professionals and amateurs. Why am I making this prediction with such confidence? Well, I gave a few lectures based on material from the book, while I was still writing it, and the results bode well for the ciphers falling.

Here’s what happened.

Early in the writing process, I was invited to give a lecture on unsolved ciphers at the United States Naval Academy. I was surprised, when I got there, by the presence of a video camera. I was asked if I was okay with the lecture being filmed and placed on YouTube. I said yes, but inside I was cursing myself for not having gotten a much needed haircut before the talk. Oh well. Despite my rough appearance, the lecture went well.[1] I surveyed some of the unsolved ciphers that I was aware of at the time, including one that had been put forth by a German colleague and friend of mine, Klaus Schmeh. It was a double transposition cipher that he had created himself to show how difficult it is to solve such ciphers. He had placed it in a book he had written on unsolved ciphers, a book which is unfortunately only available in German.[2] But to make the cipher as accessible as possible, he assured everyone that that particular bit of writing was in English.

 

VESINTNVONMWSFEWNOEALWRNRNCFITEEICRHCODEEA

HEACAEOHMYTONTDFIFMDANGTDRVAONRRTORMTDHE

OUALTHNFHHWHLESLIIAOETOUTOSCDNRITYEELSOANGP

VSHLRMUGTNUITASETNENASNNANRTTRHGUODAAARAO

EGHEESAODWIDEHUNNTFMUSISCDLEDTRNARTMOOIREEY

EIMINFELORWETDANEUTHEEEENENTHEOOEAUEAEAHUHI

CNCGDTUROUTNAEYLOEINRDHEENMEIAHREEDOLNNIRAR

PNVEAHEOAATGEFITWMYSOTHTHAANIUPTADLRSRSDNOT

GEOSRLAAAURPEETARMFEHIREAQEEOILSEHERAHAOTNT

RDEDRSDOOEGAEFPUOBENADRNLEIAFRHSASHSNAMRLT

UNNTPHIOERNESRHAMHIGTAETOHSENGFTRUANIPARTAOR

SIHOOAEUTRMERETIDALSDIRUAIEFHRHADRESEDNDOION

ITDRSTIEIRHARARRSETOIHOKETHRSRUAODTSCTTAFSTHCA

HTSYAOLONDNDWORIWHLENTHHMHTLCVROSTXVDRESDR

Figure 1. Klaus Schmeh’s double transposition cipher challenge.

When the YouTube video went online, it was seen by an Israeli computer scientist, George Lasry, who became obsessed with it. He was not employed at the time, so he was able to devote a massive amount of time to seeking the solution to this cipher. As is natural for George, he attacked it with computer programs of his own design. He eventually found himself doing almost nothing other than working on the cipher. His persistence paid off and he found himself reading the solution.

I ended up being among the very first to see George’s solution, not because I’m the one who introduced him to the challenge via the YouTube video, but because I’m the editor-in-chief of the international journal (it’s owned by the British company Taylor and Francis) Cryptologia. This journal covers everything having to do with codes and ciphers, from cutting edge cryptosystems and attacks on them, to history, pedagogy, and more. Most of the papers that appear in it are written by men and women who live somewhere other than America and it was to this journal that George submitted a paper describing how he obtained his solution to Klaus’s challenge.

George’s solution looked great to me, but I sent it to Klaus to review, just to be sure. As expected, he was impressed by the paper and I queued it up to see print. The solution generated some media attention for George, which led to him being noticed by people at Google (an American company, of course). They approached him and, after he cleared the interviewing hurdles, offered him a position, which he accepted. I was very happy that George found the solution, but of course that left me with one less unsolved cipher to write about in my forthcoming book. Not a problem. As it turns out there are far more intriguing unsolved ciphers than can be fit in a single volume. One less won’t make any difference.

Later on, but still before the book saw print, I delivered a similar lecture at the Charlotte International Cryptologic Symposium held in Charlotte, North Carolina. This time, unlike at the Naval Academy, Klaus Schmeh was in the audience.

One of the ciphers that I shared was fairly new to me. I had not spoken about it publicly prior to this event. It appeared on a tombstone in Ohio and seemed to be a Masonic cipher. It didn’t look to be sophisticated, but it was very short and shorter ciphers are harder to break. Brent Morris, a 33rd degree Mason with whom I had discussed it, thought that it might be a listing of initials of offices, such as PM, PHP, PIM (Past Master, Past High Priest, Past Illustrious Master), that the deceased had held. This cipher was new to Klaus and he made note of it and later blogged about it. Some of his followers collaborated in an attempt to solve it and succeeded. Because I hadn’t even devoted a full page to this cipher in my book, I left it in as a challenge for readers, but also added a link to the solution for those who want to see the solution right away.

Bauer

Figure 2. A once mysterious tombstone just south of Metamora, Ohio.

So, what was my role in all of this? Getting the ball rolling, that’s all. The work was done by Germans and an Israeli, but America and England benefited as well, as Google gained yet another highly intelligent and creative employee and a British owned journal received another great paper.

I look forward to hearing from other people from around the globe, as they dive into the challenges I’ve brought forth. The puzzles of the past don’t stand a chance against the globally networked geniuses of today!

Craig P. Bauer is professor of mathematics at York College of Pennsylvania. He is editor in chief of the journal Cryptologia, has served as a scholar in residence at the NSA’s Center for Cryptologic History, and is the author of Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

 

[1] It was split into two parts for the YouTube channel. You can see them at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qe0JhEajfj8 (Part 1) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L12gjgMOMw (Part 2). A few years later, I got cleaned up and delivered an updated version of the talk at the International Spy Museum. That talk, aimed at a wider audience, may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsdUDdkjdQg.

[2] Schmeh, Klaus, Nicht zu Knacken, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2012.