Matthew J. Salganik on Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age

In just the past several years, we have witnessed the birth and rapid spread of social media, mobile phones, and numerous other digital marvels. In addition to changing how we live, these tools enable us to collect and process data about human behavior on a scale never before imaginable, offering entirely new approaches to core questions about social behavior. Bit by Bit is the key to unlocking these powerful methods—a landmark book that will fundamentally change how the next generation of social scientists and data scientists explores the world around us. Matthew Salganik has provided an invaluable resource for social scientists who want to harness the research potential of big data and a must-read for data scientists interested in applying the lessons of social science to tomorrow’s technologies. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Bit by Bit.

Your book begins with a story about something that happened to you in graduate school. Can you talk a bit about that? How did that lead to the book?

That’s right. My dissertation research was about fads, something that social scientists have been studying for about as long as there have been social scientists. But because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I had access to an incredibly powerful tool that my predecessors didn’t: the Internet. For my dissertation, rather than doing an experiment in a laboratory on campus—as many of my predecessors might have—we built a website where people could listen to and download new music. This website allowed us to run an experiment that just wasn’t possible in the past. In my book, I talk more about the scientific findings from that experiment, but while it was happening there was a specific moment that changed me and that directly led to this book. One morning, when I came into my basement office, I discovered that overnight about 100 people from Brazil had participated in my experiment. To me, this was completely shocking. At that time, I had friends running traditional lab experiments, and I knew how hard they had to work to have even 10 people participate. However, with my online experiment, 100 people participated while I was sleeping. Doing your research while you are sleeping might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. Changes in technology—specifically the transition from the analog age to the digital age—mean that we can now collect and analyze social data in new ways. Bit by Bit is about doing social research in these new ways.

Who is this book for?

This book is for social scientists who want to do more data science, data scientists who want to do more social science, and anyone interested in the hybrid of these two fields. I spend time with both social scientists and data scientists, and this book is my attempt to bring the ideas from the communities together in a way that avoids the jargon of either community.  

In your talks, I’ve heard that you compare data science to a urinal.  What’s that about?

Well, I compare data science to a very specific, very special urinal: Fountain by the great French artist Marcel Duchamp. To create Fountain, Duchamp had a flash of creativity where he took something that was created for one purpose—going to the bathroom—and turned it a piece of art. But most artists don’t work that way. For example, Michelangelo, didn’t repurpose. When he wanted to create a statue of David, he didn’t look for a piece of marble that kind of looked like David: he spent three years laboring to create his masterpiece. David is not a readymade; it is a custommade.

These two styles—readymades and custommades—roughly map onto styles that can be employed for social research in the digital age. My book has examples of data scientists cleverly repurposing big data sources that were originally created by companies and governments. In other examples, however, social scientists start with a specific question and then used the tools of the digital age to create the data needed to answer that question. When done well, both of these styles can be incredibly powerful. Therefore, I expect that social research in the digital age will involve both readymades and custommades; it will involve both Duchamps and Michelangelos.

Bit by Bit devotes a lot attention to ethics.  Why?

The book provides many of examples of how researchers can use the capabilities of the digital age to conduct exciting and important research. But, in my experience, researchers who wish to take advantage of these new opportunities will confront difficult ethical decisions. In the digital age, researchers—often in collaboration with companies and governments—have increasing power over the lives of participants. By power, I mean the ability to do things to people without their consent or even awareness. For example, researchers can now observe the behavior of millions of people, and researchers can also enroll millions of people in massive experiments. As the power of researchers is increasing, there has not been an equivalent increase in clarity about how that power should be used. In fact, researchers must decide how to exercise their power based on inconsistent and overlapping rules, laws, and norms. This combination of powerful capabilities and vague guidelines can force even well-meaning researchers to grapple with difficult decisions. In the book, I try to provide principles that can help researchers—whether they are in universities, governments, or companies—balance these issues and move forward in a responsible way.

Your book went through an unusual Open Review process in addition to peer review. Tell me about that.

That’s right. This book is about social research in the digital age, so I also wanted to publish it in a digital age way. As soon as I submitted the book manuscript for peer review, I also posted it online for an Open Review during which anyone in the world could read it and annotate it. During this Open Review process dozens of people left hundreds of annotations, and I combined these annotations with the feedback from peer review to produce a final manuscript. I was really happy with the annotations that I received, and they really helped me improve the book.

The Open Review process also allowed us to collect valuable data. Just as the New York Times is tracking which stories get read and for how long, we could see which parts of the book were being read, how people arrived to the book, and which parts of the book were causing people to stop reading.

Finally, the Open Review process helped us get the ideas in the book in front of the largest possible audience. During Open Review, we had readers from all over the world, and we even had a few course adoptions. Also, in addition to posting the manuscript in English, we machine translated it into more than 100 languages, and we saw that these other languages increased our traffic by about 20%.

Was putting your book through Open Review scary?

No, it was exhilarating. Our back-end analytics allowed me see that people from around the world were reading it, and I loved the feedback that I received. Of course, I didn’t agree with all the annotations, but they were offered in a helpful spirit, and, as I said, many of them really improved the book.

Actually, the thing that is really scary to me is putting out a physical book that can’t be changed anymore. I wanted to get as much feedback as possible before the really scary thing happened.

And now you’ve made it easy for other authors to put their manuscripts through Open Review?

Absolutely. With a grant from the Sloan Foundation, we’ve released the Open Review Toolkit. It is open source software that enables authors and publishers to convert book manuscripts into a website that can be used for Open Review. And, as I said, during Open Review, you can receive valuable feedback to help improve your manuscript, feedback that is very complimentary to the feedback from peer review. During Open Review, you can also collect valuable data to help launch your book. Furthermore, all of these good things are happening at the same time that you are increasing access to scientific research, which is a core value of many authors and academic publishers.

SalganikMatthew J. Salganik is professor of sociology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning. His research has been funded by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, and has been featured on NPR and in such publications as the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Craig Bauer: Attacking the Zodiac Killer

While writing Unsolved! The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies, it soon became clear to me that I’d never finish if I kept stopping to try to solve the ciphers I was covering. It was hard to resist, but I simply couldn’t afford to spend months hammering away at each of the ciphers. There were simply too many of them. If I was to have any chance of meeting my deadline, I had to content myself with merely making suggestions as to how attacks could be carried out. My hope was that the book’s readers would be inspired to actually make the attacks. However, the situation changed dramatically when the book was done.

I was approached by the production company Karga Seven Pictures to join a team tasked with hunting the still unidentified serial killer who called himself the Zodiac. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Zodiac killed at least five people and terrorized entire cities in southern California with threatening letters mailed to area newspapers. Some of these letters included unsolved ciphers. I made speculations about these ciphers in my book, but made no serious attempt at cracking them. With the book behind me, and its deadline no longer a problem, would I like to join a code team to see if we could find solutions where all others had failed? The team would be working closely with a pair of crack detectives, Sal LaBarbera and Ken Mains, so that any leads that developed could be investigated immediately. Was I willing to take on the challenge of a very cold case? Whatever the result was, it would be no secret, for our efforts would be aired as a History channel mini-series. Was I up for it? Short answer: Hell yeah!

The final code team included two researchers I had corresponded with when working on my book, Kevin Knight (University of Southern California, Information Sciences Institute) and David Oranchak (software developer and creator of Zodiac Killer Ciphers. The other members were Ryan Garlick (University of North Texas, Computer Science) and Sujith Ravi (Google software engineer).

My lips are sealed as to what happened (why ruin the suspense?), but the show premieres Tuesday November 14, 2017 at 10pm EST. It’s titled “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer.” All I’ll say for now is that it was a rollercoaster ride. For those of you who would like to see how the story began for me, Princeton University Press is making the chapter of my book on the Zodiac killer freely available for the duration of the mini-series. It provides an excellent background for those who wish to follow the TV team’s progress.

If you find yourself inspired by the show, you can turn to other chapters of the book for more unsolved “killer ciphers,” as well challenges arising from nonviolent contexts. It was always my hope that readers would resolve some of these mysteries and I’m more confident than ever that it can be done!

BauerCraig 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 Secret History: The Story of Cryptology. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.

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.

Craig Bauer on unsolved ciphers

In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried—and failed—to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In Unsolved, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

Why focus on unsolved ciphers?

They’re much more intriguing because they could be concealing anything. Some might reveal the identities of serial killers. Others could unmask spies, rewrite history, expose secret societies, or even give the location of buried treasure worth millions. This sense of mystery is very appealing to me.

Did you try to solve the ciphers yourself first?

There are so many unsolved ciphers that I realized I would never finish writing about them if I kept stopping to try to solve them. There’s one that I’m confident I could solve, but instead of doing so, I simply presented the approach I think will work and am leaving it for a reader to pursue. I expect that several of them will be solved by readers and I look forward to seeing their results!

Does someone who wants to attack these mysteries need to know a lot of mathematics or have computer programming skills?

No. Many of the ciphers were created by people with very little knowledge in either area. Also, past solvers of important ciphers have included amateurs. One of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers was solved by a high school history teacher. Some of the ciphers might be solved in a manner that completely bypasses mathematics. A reader may find a solution through papers the cipher’s creator left behind, perhaps in some library’s archives, in government storage, or in a relative’s possession. I think some may be solved by pursuing a paper trail or some other non-mathematical avenue. Of course, there are mathematical challenges as well, for those who have the skills to take them on. The puzzles span thousands of years, from ancient Egypt to today’s online community. Twentieth century challenges come from people as diverse as Richard Feynman (a world-class physicist) and Ricky McCormick (thought to have been illiterate).

Are all of the unsolved ciphers covered in the book?

No, far from it. There are enough unsolved ciphers to fill many volumes. I limited myself to only the most interesting examples, and still there were too many! I originally set out to write a book about half the size of what was ultimately published. The problem was that there was so much fascinating material that I had to go to 600 pages or experience the agony of omitting something fabulous. Also, unsolved ciphers from various eras are constantly coming to light, and new ones are created every year. I will likely return to the topic with a sequel covering the best of these.

Which cipher is your favorite?

I’m the most excited about the Paul Rubin case. It involves a cipher found taped to the abdomen of a teenage whiz-kid who was found dead in a ditch by the Philadelphia airport, way back in 1953. While I like well-known unsolved ciphers like the Voynich Manuscript and Kryptos, I have higher hopes for this one being solved because it hasn’t attracted any attention since the 1950s. The codebreakers have made a lot of progress since then, so it’s time to take another look and see what can be learned about this young man’s death. I felt it was very important to include cases that will be new even to those who have read a great deal about cryptology already and this is one such case.

Should the potential reader have some prior knowledge of the subject?

If he or she does, there will still be much that is new, but for those with no previous exposure to cryptology, everything is explained from the ground up. As a teenager I loved books at the popular level on a wide range of topics. In particular, the nonfiction of Isaac Asimov instilled in me a love for many subjects. He always started at the beginning, assuming his readers were smart, but new to the topic he was covering. This is the approach that I have taken. I hope that the book finds a wide readership among the young and inspires them in the same way Asimov inspired me.

Is there anything that especially qualifies you to write on this topic?

Early work on this book was supported by the National Security Agency through their Scholar-in-Residence program at the Center for Cryptologic History. They wanted me in this role because, while I have a PhD in mathematics and have carried out mathematical research in cryptology, I also have a passion for history and other disciplines. In fact, both of my books have the word “history” in their titles. The journal Cryptologia, for which I serve as the editor-in-chief, is devoted to all aspects of cryptology, mathematical, historical, pedagogical, etc. My love of diverse fields allows me to write with enthusiasm about ciphers in music, art, criminal cases, ancient history, and other areas. The broad approach to the subject is more entertaining and ensures that there’s something in the book for nearly every reader.

BauerCraig 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.

Craig Bauer: The Ongoing Mystery of Unsolved Ciphers (and new hope)

When a civilization first develops writing and few people are literate, simply putting a message down on paper can be all that is required to keep an enemy from understanding it. As literacy spreads, a more sophisticated method is needed, which is why codes and ciphers, a.k.a. “secret writing,” always follow closely on the heels of the discovery of writing. Over the millennia, ciphers have become extremely sophisticated, but so too have the techniques used by those attempting to break them.

In recent decades, everyone from mathematicians and computer scientists to artists and authors have created ciphers as challenges to specialists or the general public, to see if anyone is clever enough to unravel the secrets. Some, like the first three parts of James Sanborn’s sculpture Kryptos and the ciphers appearing in the television show Gravity Falls, have been solved, while others remain mysteries. The highly secretive online society known as Cicada 3301 has repeatedly issued such challenges as a means of talent scouting, though for what purpose such talented individuals are sought remains unknown. One unsolved cipher was laid down as a challenge by former British army intelligence officer Alexander d’Agapeyeff in his book Codes & Ciphers (1939). Sadly, when frustrated letters of enquiry reached the author, he admitted that he had forgotten how to solve it! Another was made by the famous composer Edward Elgar in 1897 as a riddle for a young lady friend of his. She, along with various experts, all failed to ferret out the meaning and Elgar himself refused to reveal it.

 

Elgar's cipher

Elgar’s cipher

 

Many unsolved ciphers appear in much more serious contexts. The serial killer who referred to himself as “The Zodiac” was responsible for at least five murders, as well as the creation of several ciphers sent to San Francisco newspapers. While the first of these ciphers was solved, others remain unbroken. Could a solution to one of these lead to an identification of the killer? Although many have speculated on his identity, it has never been firmly established. The Zodiac is not the only murderer to have left us such mysterious communiques, he is just the best known. Other killers’ secrets have persisted through relative obscurity. How many readers have heard of Henry Debsonys? In 1883, a jury sentenced him to death for the murder of his wife, after deliberating for only nine minutes. But this unfortunate woman was Henry’s third wife and the first two died under strange circumstances. Had Henry killed all of them? Will the ciphers he left behind confirm this? I think his ciphers will be among the first to fall this year, thanks to a major clue I provide in my book, Unsolved: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies. There are many more such criminal ciphers. One deranged individual even sent threatening letters containing ciphers to John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted fame! The FBI’s codebreakers maintain a list of their top unsolved ciphers. At present, only two of these are known to the public, but many others that didn’t make the top 10 are available for anyone to try to crack.

How do codebreakers, whether amateur or professional, meet the challenges they face? Statistics and other areas of mathematics often help, as do computers, but two of the codebreakers’ most powerful tools are context and intuition. This is why ciphers have often been broken by amateurs with no programming skills and little knowledge of mathematics. Enter Donald Harden, a high school history teacher, who with assistance from his wife Bettye, broke one of the Zodiac killer’s ciphers by guessing that the egotistical killer’s message would begin with “I” and contain the word “KILL.” Context allows the attacker to guess words, sometimes entire phrases, that might appear in the message. These are known as cribs. During World War II, the German word eins (meaning one) appeared in so many Nazi messages that a process known as “einsing” was developed, searching the cipher for the appearance of this word in every possible position. In today’s ciphers, the word President appears frequently.

Of course, time and again cribs and intuition can lead in the wrong direction. Indeed, the single most important attribute for a codebreaker is patience. A good codebreaker will have the ability to work on a cipher for months, for that is sometimes what it takes to reach a solution, ignoring the body’s normal demands for food and sleep; during World War I, the French codebreaker Georges Painvin lost 33 pounds over three months while sitting at a desk breaking the German ADFGX and ADFGVX ciphers.

Fig 2

Fig 3Is it possible that some of the earliest known ciphers, dating from the ancient world, have survived unread by anyone other than those they were created for? I believe this is the case and that they’ve been hiding in plain sight, like the purloined letter in Poe’s classic tale. Those studying ancient cultures have long been aware of so-called “nonsense inscriptions.” These appear on Egyptian sarcophagi, Greek vases, runestones, and elsewhere. They are typically dismissed as the work of illiterates imitating writing, merely because the experts cannot read them. But all of these cultures are known to have made use of ciphers and some of the contexts of the inscriptions are so solemn (e.g. sarcophagi) that it’s hard to believe they could be meaningless. I’d like to see a closer examination of these important objects. I expect some of the messages will be read in the near future, if cryptologists can form collaborations with linguists. These two groups have worked together successfully in military contexts for many decades. It is time that they also join forces for historical studies.

With a very large number of unsolved ciphers, spanning millennia, having been composed by a diverse group of individuals, it seems likely that it will take a diverse group of attackers, with skills ranging over many disciplines, to solve them. Some mysterious texts may reveal themselves to clever computer programmers or linguists, others to those taking the psychological approach, getting into the creator’s head and guessing phrases he or she used in the cipher, and some may be broken by readers who manage to discover related material in government archives or private hands that provides just enough extra information to make the break. I look forward to seeing the results!

BauerCraig 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.

Celebration of Science: A reading list

This Earth Day 2017, Princeton University Press is celebrating science in all its forms. From ecology to psychology, astronomy to earth sciences, we are proud to publish books at the highest standards of scholarship, bringing the best work of scientists to a global audience. We all benefit when scientists are given the space to conduct their research and push the boundaries of the human store of knowledge further. Read on for a list of essential reading from some of the esteemed scientists who have published with Princeton University Press.

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge
Abraham Flexner and Robbert Dijkgraaf

Use

The Serengeti Rules
Sean B. Carroll

Carroll

Honeybee Democracy
Thomas D. Seeley

Seeley

Silent Sparks
Sara Lewis

Lewis

Where the River Flows
Sean W. Fleming

Fleming

How to Clone a Mammoth
Beth Shapiro

Shapiro

The Future of the Brain
Gary Marcus & Jeremy Freeman

Brain

Searching for the Oldest Stars
Anna Frebel

Frebel

Climate Shock
Gernot Wagner & Martin L. Weitzman

Climate

Welcome to the Universe
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott

Universe

The New Ecology
Oswald J. Schmitz

Schmitz

Brian Kernighan on what we all need to know about computers

KernighanLaptops, tablets, cell phones, and smart watches: computers are inescapable. But even more are invisible, like those in appliances, cars, medical equipment, transportation systems, power grids, and weapons. We never see the myriad computers that quietly collect, share, and sometimes leak vast amounts of personal data about us, and often don’t consider the extent to which governments and companies increasingly monitor what we do. In Understanding the Digital World, Brian W. Kernighan explains, in clear terms, not only how computers and programming work, but also how computers influence our daily lives. Recently, Kernighan answered some questions about his new book.

Who is this book for? What kind of people are most likely to be interested?

BK: It’s a cliché, but it really is aimed at the proverbial “educated layman.” Everyone uses computers and phones for managing their lives and communicating with other people. So the book is for them. I do think that people who have some technical background will enjoy it, but will also find that it will help their less technical friends and family understand.

What’s the basic message of the book?

BK: Computers—laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, gadgets—are all around us. The Internet lets our computers communicate with us and with other computers all over the world. And there are billions of computers in infrastructure that we rely on without even realizing its existence. Computers and communications systems have changed our lives dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to do so. So anyone who hopes to be at least somewhat informed ought to understand the basics of how such things work. One major concern has been the enormous increase in surveillance and a corresponding reduction in our personal privacy. We are under continuous monitoring by government agencies like the NSA in the United States and similar ones in other countries. At the same time, commercial interests track everything we do online and with our phones. Some of this is acceptable, but in my opinion, it’s gone way too far. It’s vital that we understand better what is being done and how to reduce the tracking and spying. The more we understand about how these systems work, the more we can defend ourselves, while still taking advantage of the many benefits they provide. For example, it’s quite possible to explore interesting and useful web sites without being continuously tracked. You don’t have to reveal everything about yourself to social networks. But you have to know something about how to set up some defenses. More generally, I’m trying to help the reader to reach a better than superficial understanding of how computers work, what software is and how it’s created, and how the Internet and the Web operate. Going just a little deeper into these is totally within the grasp of anyone. The more you know, the better off you will be; knowing even a little about these topics will put you ahead of the large majority of people, and will protect you from any number of foolish behaviors.

Can you give us an example of how to defend ourselves against tracking by web sites?

BK: Whenever you visit a web site, a record is made of your visit, often by dozens of systems that are collecting information that can be used for targeted advertising. It’s easy to reduce this kind of tracking by turning off third-party cookies and by installing some ad-blocking software. You can still use the primary site, but you don’t give away much if anything to the trackers, so the spread of information about you is more limited.

If I don’t care if companies know what sites I visit, why should I be worried?

BK: “I’ve got nothing to hide,” spoken by an individual, or “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” offered by a government, are pernicious ideas. They frame the discussion in such a way as to concede the point at the beginning. Of course you have nothing to hide. If that’s true, would you mind showing me your tax returns? How did you vote in the last election? What’s your salary? Could I have your social security number? Could you tell me who you’ve called in the past year? Of course not—most of your life is no one else’s business.

What’s the one thing that you would advise everyone to do right now to improve their online privacy and security?

BK: Just one thing? Learn more about how your computer and your phone work, how the Internet works, and how to use all of them wisely. But I would add some specific recommendations, all of which are easy and worthwhile. First, in your browser, install defensive extensions like like AdBlock and Ghostery, and turn off third-party cookies. This will take you less than ten minutes and will cut your exposure by at least a factor of ten. Second, make sure that your computer is backed up all the time; this protects you against hardware failure and your own mistakes (both of which are not uncommon), and also against ransomware (though that is much less a risk if you are alert and have turned on your defenses). Third, use different passwords for different sites; that way, if one account is compromised, others will not be. And don’t use your Facebook or Google account to log in to other sites; that increases your vulnerability and gives away information about you for minor convenience. Finally, be very wary about clicking on links in email that have even the faintest hint of something wrong. Phishing attacks are one of the most common ways that accounts are compromised and identities stolen.

KernighanBrian W. Kernighan is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Princeton University. He is the coauthor of ten other books, including the computing classic The C Programming Language (Prentice Hall). He is the author of Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security.

David Alan Grier: The Light of Computation

by David Alan Grier

When one figure steps into the light, others can be seen in the reflected glow. The movie Hidden Figures has brought a little light to the contributions of NASA’s human computers. Women such as Katherine Goble Johnson and her colleagues of the West Area Computers supported the manned space program by doing hours of repetitive, detailed orbital calculations. These women were not the first mathematical workers to toil in the obscurity of organized scientific calculation. The history of organized computing groups can be traced back to the 17th century, when a French astronomer convinced three friends to help him calculate the date that Halley’s comet would return to view. Like Johnson, few human computers have received any recognition for their labors. For many, only their families appreciated the work that they did. For some, not even their closest relatives knew of their role in the scientific community.

GrierMy grandmother confessed her training as a human computer only at the very end of her life. At one dinner, she laid her fork on the table and expressed regret that she had never used calculus. Since none of us believed that she had gone to college, we dismissed the remark and moved the conversation in a different direction. Only after her passing did I find the college records that confirmed she had taken a degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1921. The illumination from those records showed that she was not alone. Half of the twelve mathematics majors in her class were women. Five of those six had been employed as human computers or statistical clerks.

By 1921, organized human computing was fairly common in industrialized countries. The governments of the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia supported groups that did calculations for nautical almanacs, national surveys, agricultural statistics, weapons testing, and weather prediction. The British Association for the Advancement of Science operated a computing group. So did the Harvard Observatory, Iowa State University, and the University of Indiana. One school, University College London, published a periodical for these groups, Tracts for Computers.

While many of these human computers were women, most were not. Computation was considered to be a form of clerical work, which was still a career dominated by men. However, human computers tended to be individuals who faced economic or social barriers to their careers. These barriers prevented them from becoming a scientist or engineer in spite of their talents. In the book When Computers Were Human, I characterized them as “Blacks, women, Irish, Jews and the merely poor.” One of the most prominent computing groups of the 20th century, the Mathematical Tables Project, hired only the impoverished. It operated during the Great Depression and recruited its 450 computers from New York City’s unemployment rolls.

During its 10 years of operations, the Math Tables Project toiled in obscurity. Only a few members of the scientific community recognized its contributions. Hans Bethe asked the group to do the calculations for a paper that he was writing in the physics of the sun. The engineer Philip Morse brought problems from his colleagues at MIT. The pioneering computer scientist John von Neumann asked the group to test a new mathematical optimization technique after he was unable to test it on the new ENIAC computer. However, most scientists maintained a distance between themselves and the Mathematical Tables Project. One member of the Academy of Science explained his reservations about the Project with an argument that came to be known as the Computational Syllogism. Scientists, he argued, are successful people. The poor, he asserted, are not successful. Therefore, he concluded, the poor cannot be scientists and hence should not be employed in computation.

Like the human computers of NASA, the Mathematical Tables Project had a brief moment in the spotlight. In 1964, the leader of the Project, Gertrude Blanch, received a Federal Woman’s Award from President Lyndon Johnson for her contributions to the United States Government. Yet, her light did not shine far enough to bring recognition to the 20 members of the Math Tables Project who published a book, later that year, on the methods of scientific computing. The volume became one of the most highly sold scientific books in history. Nonetheless, few people knew that it was written by former human computers.

The attention to Katherine Goble Johnson is welcome because it reminds us that science is a community endeavor. When we recognize the authors of scientific articles, or applaud the distinguished men and women who receive Nobel Prizes (or in the case of computer science, Turing Medals) we often fail to see the community members that were essential to the scientific work. At least in Hidden Figures, they receive a little of the reflected light.

David Alan Grier is the author of When Computers Were Human. He writes “Global Code” for Computer magazine and products the podcast “How We Manage Stuff.” He can be reached at grier@gwu.edu.