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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.

Open Season: Pancake Flipping

In this series of articles, I’m writing about mathematical questions we don’t know the answer to – which haven’t yet been proven or disproven. This edition is a topical one, for Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday, celebrated in the UK this year on 9th February).

pancakesSome of the best mathematical teasers are those which originate in a real-world problem – although the problem for pure mathematicians is that that happens much less often than it does for applied mathematicians, who are presented with interesting real-world problems all the time. That’s why it’s especially nice when a more pure one pops up, and that’s exactly what happened to mathematician Jacob E Goodman, back in 1975.

3.142: a π round-up

Pi pie by Robert Couse-Baker. Photo used under the CC-BY 2.0 license.

π pie by Robert Couse-Baker. Photo used under the CC-BY 2.0 licence.

‘Tis the season to celebrate the circle constant! Yes, that’s right: in some calendar systems using some date notation, the day and month coincide with the first three digits of π, and mathematicians all over the world are celebrating with thematic baked goods and the wearing of irrational t-shirts.

And the internet’s maths cohort isn’t far behind. Here’s a round-up (geddit – round?!) of some of our favourites. In case you were wondering, we at The Aperiodical hadn’t forgotten about π day – we’re just saving ourselves for next year, when we’ll celebrate the magnificent “3.14.15”, which will for once be more accurate to the value of π than π approximation day on 22/7. (Admittedly, for the last few years, 3.14.14 and so on have strictly been closer to π than 22/7. But this will be the first time you can include the year and feel like you’re doing it right.)

Maths at the Fringe

Starting next week, the historic city of Edinburgh will be taken over by entertainers of all types, performing comedy, dance, theatre and music, entertaining visitors to their massive world-famous festival fringe. Since discerning mathematicians sometimes also enjoy being entertained, I thought I’d write a roundup of the shows maths has non-empty intersection with.

First up, since we haven’t mentioned him in a while, it’s Alan Turing! No, his reanimated corpse isn’t performing edgy stand-up, but theatre company Idle Motion is performing a visual theatre piece entitled That Is All You Need To Know, celebrating the work of Bletchley Park codebreakers. Alan Turing Alan Turing Alan Turing.