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.
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).
Some 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.
‘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.)
The latest episode of BBC Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage took “an irreverent and rational look at numbers, logic and mathematics” and is available to download for a length of time unbounded above in podcast form.
Series 9, Episode 4: “To Infinity and Beyond” on BBC Radio 4.
The Infinite Monkey Cage, on the BBC website
The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast
Today, author Simon Singh took part in a Twitter-based webchat for the BBC News website, taking questions about his new book on Maths in the Simpsons, and mathematics in general. Here’s how it all went down.