Non-fiction: February 2008 Archives

Encryption is an old invention, probably almost as old as writing itself. There have always been secrets to hide from others. Methods of encryption have evolved, as unbreakable codes have been broken and new codes have come to replace them.

Singh goes through the history of encryption from ancients times to the quantum computers of future. The book is a nice mixture of easy-to-understand explanation, historical background and methodology of codebreaking. There are several interesting stories and legends in the book, for example the Beale codes, Navajo whisperers and the breaking of the German Enigma code. There's also a bit of archeology, in the form of figuring out the hieroglyphs and the Cretan Linear B writing. Decyphering those obscure forms of writing was quite a cryptographical feat!

I found this book absolutely charming and recommend it to anybody interested in the topic. Actually, go ahead and read even if you don't care about the topic - you'll soon find yourself very interested in cryptography, it's such a fascinating topic and such a well-written book. [ The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking at ]The Code Book at LibraryThing ]

Pierre de Fermat was a skilled amateur mathematician in the 17th century, whose most important legacy was a sentence written on a margin: "Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet," "I have invented a miraculous proof but there's not enough room in the margins for it".

What Fermat claims to have proven is that xn + yn = zn is false with all integers if n is more than two (if n is two, that is Pythagoras's Theorem and obviously true with some integers). Too bad nobody was able to repeat Fermat's proof of the theorem in 350 years, until Andrew Wiles proved it in 1995 after years of hard work.

Singh's book covers the basic history of mathematics and describes all sorts of attempts to prove Fermat's theorem, particularly Andrew Wiles' attempts. The mathematics involved are very difficult, so Singh skips most of that. The result is an entertaining book that is interesting to read even if you're not a mathematician. Singh is a skilled author of popular science books and this one is no exception. [ Fermat's Last Theorem at ]Fermat's Last Theorem at LibraryThing ]

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