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Cryptogram competition – results and solution

Cover of The Mathematics of Secrets, by Josh HoldenTen days ago we posted a cryptogram puzzle, set by mathematician and author Josh Holden. We’ve had a number of entries, some which were so enthusiastic they ignored that we’d said to email them in and tried to post in the comments. However, from the correctly submitted entries, we had one stand-out winner – a quick reply, with a detailed description of the solution and a worthy recipient of a copy of The Mathematics of Secrets. Here’s Josh’s explanation of the puzzle, for anyone who hasn’t cracked it yet.

Competition: Cryptogram Puzzle

Author and mathematician Josh Holden has come up with a nice puzzle — so we’re posting it as a competition. If you think you can decrypt the message below, send in the decrypted message and a one- or two-sentence description of the mathematical principle behind the encryption key to root@aperiodical.com.  The first correct entry received will win a copy of Josh’s book, The Mathematics of Secrets.

The technical name for the “cryptograms” found in many newspapers and magazines is monoalphabetic monographic substitution ciphers — monographic meaning that they make substitutions one letter at a time and monoalphabetic meaning that the substitution rule is the same every time a given letter appears in the message.

Most often the easiest way to start solving these is to look at one-letter words which are usually “I” or “a”, then two-letter words, etc. If the breaks between the words are removed, then you might use the fact that in a typical English text the letter “e” will occur about 13% of the time, followed by “t” and “a” at 7-8% and others farther behind.

What then should we make of the following cryptogram?

YOFQX RGLQT GCQPB FFGQJ IQOFT SYVQH FSFQV FTYFC QJGQY OFRSQ YOSJG FQHOF GQYOF NQTSS REFCQ HRYOQ TQLSF TYQZS JHCQT VVFDW AFCQT WJBYQ YOFDQ TAAQV JSYVQ JIQAR YYAFQ WRSCV QTGCQ WFTVY VQTVQ HFAAQ TVQYO FQHOJ AFQMT ZXQJI QZTSC VQYOF QXGTE FQHTV QVYTG CRGLQ WFIJS FQYOF DQRGQ ZOTRG VQHRY OQTQV JACRF SQJGQ FTZOQ VRCFQ YJQLB TSCQO RDQTG CQGFT SQYOF QXRGL QHTVQ YOFQH ORYFQ STWWR YQHRY OQTQY SBDMF YQRGQ JGFQO TGCQT GCQTQ VZSJA AQJIQ MTSZO DFGYQ RGQYO FQJYO FS

The letter “Q” appears almost 20% of the time, followed by “F” at about 10%, and “Y” and “T” at about 8%. The original text is English (in fact it’s from a famous work of children’s literature) and it doesn’t have a particularly odd distribution of letters. Can you decrypt the message? For bonus points, can you figure out what is mathematically interesting about the encryption key?

How to join in with our distributed Wiki edit day

Karen editing Wikipedia on her laptopYou may have seen our post last month about our remote Wiki Editing Day, this coming Saturday 12th May. We’re hoping to get a bunch of people in different locations editing pages on Wikiquote and other Wikimedia sites, to improve the visibility of female mathematicians. Here’s how you can get involved.

The chromatic number of the plane is at least 5

A long-standing mathematical problem has had a recent breakthrough – scientist Aubrey de Grey has proved that the chromatic number of the plane is at least 5.

Wikiquote edit-a-thon – Saturday, May 12th, 2018

TL;DR: We’re holding a distributed Wikipedia edit-a-thon on Saturday, May 12th, 2018 from 10am to improve the visibility of women mathematicians on the Wikiquotes Mathematics page. Join in from wherever you are! Details below, and in this Google Doc.


Extension and abstraction without apparent direction or purpose is fundamental to the discipline. Applicability is not the reason we work, and plenty that is not applicable contributes to the beauty and magnificence of our subject.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Trying to solve real-world problems, researchers often discover that the tools they need were developed years, decades or even centuries earlier by mathematicians with no prospect of, or care for, applicability.
– Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

There is no way to guarantee in advance what pure mathematics will later find application. We can only let the process of curiosity and abstraction take place, let mathematicians obsessively take results to their logical extremes, leaving relevance far behind, and wait to see which topics turn out to be extremely useful. If not, when the challenges of the future arrive, we won’t have the right piece of seemingly pointless mathematics to hand.
Peter Rowlett, “The unplanned impact of mathematics”, Nature 475, 2011, pp. 166-169.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have every admiration for Peter and his work; his is a thoughtful voice of reason, and it’s not at all unreasonable for the Wikiquote page on mathematics to cite his writing.

Hannah Fry’s ‘Contagion’ programme broadcast tonight

Hannah Fry showing off the Pandemic mobile app

You may remember back in September we posted about a mass-participation science experiment, aiming to model the spread of diseases in human populations using a smartphone app. The results of this experiment, presented by the contagiously loveable Hannah Fry, will be presented in a documentary this evening on BBC4. You can also see Hannah chatting about the experiment on this evening’s The One Show.

Contagion! The BBC4 Pandemic, on the BBC watch-o-tron

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