on 12 January 2005
Others have already sung this book's praises, so I won't go into too much detail.
The Code Book gives the entire history of cryptology, starting with very basic substitution cypers, working all the way up to today's electronic systems. It is not, though, a reference book - it's very entertaining to read and doesn't solely focus on the science of the codes - Singh also relates stories behind codes.
Not only does he explain the codes, but also how they are broken. Singh is brilliant at making the complicated simple, and even manages to explain how the 'unbreakable' German Enigma was cracked in a way that will make you understand (at least while you are reading the book - if you try to explain it to someone else later you might get a bit muddled...)
This really is an incredible book - excellently written with a very interesting subject matter. Highly recommended.
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on 12 August 2004
This is the second book by Simon Singh, and he readily admits that he was surprised by the success of the first; 'Fermat's Last Theorem'. If you enjoyed that, then this will delight and entertain you, as well as lead you forward in an easy manner. There are some very complex ideas and processes encountered, yet each is tackled not as a whole, but as a series of small steps, explained in simple terms. It seems that the author subscribes to the notion that there is no such thing as a hard subject - the only hard part is the number of simple steps that are used, and the order they are combined, in order to reach the complex picture.
Singh states from the beginning that the book has two aims; to chart the evolution of codes, and to show that the study of codes and cryptology is as relevant for today as ever. Information always has had a high value, and there have been divers means employed throughout history to keep matters private where appropriate. The reasons for this secrecy are not always the same, but whether it is political, military, security or commercial, organisations and governments want to know that their information is safe, and at the same time strive to read similar matter from opponents. The history of codes and code breaking has been a struggle between the code makers, and the code breakers, with sometimes one and sometimes the other having the ascendancy. Sometimes intrigue and espionage have enabled a foothold to be gained to enable code breaking to continue.
The early use of codes and ciphers are explained well, and the author uses imaginative illustrations to convey his ideas. The chapters on modern developments, with private and public keys, for example, are brought to life with the example of mixing the colours of private paint stores. A mental picture is much better than mere words to describe the one-way functions that are used in encrypting and deciphering messages using public and private keys. It is also necessary to understand some of the early developments in code making and code breaking to grasp what happened at Bletchley Park, in the breaking of the Enigma codes during World War II. Singh admits to simplifying the Enigma story, but this does not detract from a particularly absorbing part of the book. There is also good list of books and web sites, for those wishing to gain more information. This applies to many of the code stories, whether this is from archaeology (the Rosetta Stone, or Linear B), or the actual use of encryption (the Zimmermann telegram, Pretty Good Privacy).
'The Code Book' was published prior to the events of September 11th 2001, but asks some pertinent questions on the nature of security. Just as code breaking and code making have been battling for many years, now that there are 'unbreakable codes' available, the debate has moved on to the need for security or the protection of individual freedoms. It is believed that the Data Encryption Standard (DES) was weakened to enable this to be broken by US government agencies. This book is not just a popular and populist history; it also raises questions that are relevant to us all. That is why the second of Singh's aims has been met. The first is achieved in a hugely entertaining read.
Incidentally, the cipher challenge is still an integral part of the book, although the prize is no longer available. It took 1 year and 1 month for the challenge to be successfully claimed, a tribute to the difficulty of the ten parts. If you have read the book, and have a few idle moments, perhaps you would like to try to crack the Beale ciphers and claim the huge cache of gold and silver that the documents describe. Oh, and when you have finished that, there is always the breakthrough that is waited for Linear A.
Peter Morgan, firstname.lastname@example.org
on 27 August 2001
I approached this book with some trepidation. I have an interest in science but wasn't familiar with terms like cryptanalysis and the various other technical terms explained so well in this book. This is a subject which, if mis-handled, could make for an extremely boring book but Mr. Singh has the rare ability to make the most difficult subjects easy for the reader to comprehend and so this book is a fascinating journey into medieval treason trials, pre-historic lost cultures and modern day espionage - all the while educating us too.
on 5 October 2010
I'm not going to review the actual text itself here - there's enough other reviews talking about how excellent it is. Rather, I'll mention how disappointing the Kindle conversion of this title is: rather than having been specifically prepared for the Kindle, it seems the publishers simply scanned the print version and ran it through an OCR package. Incorrect characters abound in the text - for example, the letters "AT" get repeatedly used where a capital 'N' is intended in the section explaining RSA encryption. Also, most of the diagrams from the original text are missing, and where they are present, they are hard to read and flow badly with the text, often being several pages away from the text that refers to them.
It's a shame, because it's a truly excellent book, and the fact it's still readable despite all the errors and omissions is a testament to Singh's talent as a science communicator, but really, if this level of sloppiness and lack of care from publishers is what we can expect from Kindle editions in the future, it is a disappointing future indeed.
This is my favourite non-fiction book. Why? Well it's an interesting and intriguing topic, its well written and an easy read but the key (excuse the bad pun) for me is that Singh strikes the perfect balance of giving you a taster of a technique, explaining it significance and giving examples of this with some great real world examples.
The opening chapter exemplifies this with how it describes Mary Queen of Scots use of a cryptography technique and the unfortunate results it had for her when they were intercepted and eventually decoded.
Knowing little about nano technology I found this chapter near the end very difficult to follow but Singh does well to describe it in a way that did at least give me half a chance at understanding it.
The book was written to accompany his UK Channel 4 TV series; having seen only one episode of it I can say it certainly stand on its own two feet.
If you want a great introduction to this subject I can not see you doing any better than this book. I don't think you have to have a strong interest in the subject to enjoy it. I suspect older kids could get into it easily and there's examples to try on his web site.
on 28 July 2000
I saw this at the airport and thought it looked like a good read. I wasn't wrong. From the first page Singh grips the reader, tracing the history of cryptography from well before the Middle Ages to present day. It does get a but tedious and techie sometimes - particularly the discussion on RSA and PGP and heaven help you in the last chapter if you are unfamiliar with quantum mechanics - but overall this is an enjoyable book.
I especially enjoyed the chapters on cipherbreakers during the Second World War. If anyone saw Station X on Channel 4 last year, you will enjoy this discussion.
The reader participation bit (The Cipher Challenge) is good. So far I have only completed the first cipher, but here goes for the rest!
I really enjoyed this history of code breaking, from its earliest beginnings. Singh makes it accessible and interesting, though, to be honest, my little brain did start to rebel a bit at some of the explanations of the codes. It's not that it was too mathemtical (this is no "a brief history of time", thank God!!), I guess my brain just isn't made that way. Still a really interesting insight into why, amongst other things, you can do your banking on line and send secure information, without other people being able to read it. (At least, that's the theory, right?)
on 14 November 2002
This book is great. How else can you describe a book that completely demystifies the arcane and comlex world of codes and chipers into a contextualised and highly readable history of the art of keeping secrets.
The flow of the book from substitution ciphers through to quantum theory is fluid and lucid, with a non-mathamatician like myself being hand-held through the tricky bits - although Singh breaks it down so well, that this book could be re-titled "The Dummies Guide To...."