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Review: The Mathematics of Secrets by Joshua Holden

Any book on cryptography written for a more-or-less lay audience must inevitably face comparisons to The Code Book, written in 1999 by Simon Singh, the king of distilling complex subjects to a few hundred pages of understandable writing. While Singh’s book is a pretty thorough history of codes and codebreaking through the centuries with plenty of the maths thrown in, The Mathematics of Secrets is tilted (and indeed titled) more towards a fuller explanation of the mathematical techniques underlying the various ciphers. Although Holden’s book follows a basically chronological path, you won’t find too much interest in pre-computer ciphers here: Enigma is cracked on page seventy, and the name Alan Turing does not appear in the book.

Binary/Nail Varnish Puzzle – solution

Previously, we posted about Katie’s Binary Nail varnish tutorial video, and how you can use glitter (1) and no glitter (0) to encode binary messages in your nail varnish. We also posted an accompanying puzzle, stated as:

Suppose I want to paint my nails on one hand differently every day for a month – so I need to use all 31 combinations involving glitter. Assuming that a nail painted with plain varnish can have glitter added, but a nail with glitter needs to be nail-varnish-removed before it can become a plain nail again, what order do I apply the different combinations so that you minimise the amount of nail varnish remover I’ll need to use?

Here’s our take on the solution.

The new Eurovision scoring system: the maths

jedward maths
It’s Eurovision time again! A chance for everyone to enjoy musical performances that are either good or so bad they’re good, ridiculous staging, and hilarious costumes, all sprinkled with a gently sarcastic Irish voiceover (if you’re lucky enough to be watching in the UK).

BUT WHAT’S THIS? They’ve changed the voting system? Don’t worry – some mathematicians are here to straighten it out for you.

Improbable John Conway/Pizza Hut collaboration for π day

John Conway, here pictured browsing the character table of $Fi_{23}$

Restaurant chain Pizza Hut in the US have announced a promotion for “Pi Day” on March 14, involving an unlikely partnership with renowned group-theorist, Life-wrangler and apparent pizza-lover John Conway. (Apparently, pizza and pie are somehow linked in America. It is probably best not to worry about this.)

Featuring on their blog as the inaugural post under the optimistic tags ‘math‘ and ‘John Conway‘, they explain that three maths puzzles set by Conway will be posted on Pi Day, “varying in level of difficulty from high school to Ph.D. level”. Residents of the 48 contiguous US states can leave their answers in the comments when the puzzles are posted, and the winners receive a 3.14-year supply of pizza (or, as the rules clarify, a somewhat more prosaic $1600 Pizza Hut gift card).

Obviously we will have to wait for the questions to be unveiled to be able to judge the appropriate level of excitement for this promotion, but with Conway involved, no maths-is-really-hard nonsense in the blog post, and not a formula for the perfect anything in sight, things are looking promising for a nice bit of harmless maths/poor childhood diet fun.

More information

Pizza Hut partners with mathematician John H. Conway for National Pi Day math contest – the blog post announcing the competition

John Conway on Wikipedia

GCHQ Christmas puzzles winners and solutions announced

GCHQ nonogram puzzle

The first puzzle is a super-fun 25×25 nonogram puzzle

Before Christmas, the benign megasurveillance bods at GCHQ released a set of festive puzzles, in the form of a Christmas card and associated website. An initial nonogram puzzle led to a sequence of increasingly fiendish teasers, and solvers of the final set of puzzles were invited to email in their answers, with the correctest winning a fancy paperweight, signed book and, GCHQ were at pains to stress, not an Imitation-Game-style secret job offer.