The Mathematics of Secrets: Cryptography From Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption, by Joshua Holden, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2017. 392 pp., $29.95 (hardbound). ISBN 9780691141756.
Five out of five stars
It is a rite of passage among boys that they form a club and have a secret code known to members only. Many of them never outgrow their desire for secret codes. While encryption has always been essential in the control of state and military secrets, in the era of electronic communication it is the mechanism whereby trillions of dollars of commerce is safely conducted. This book is a combination of the history of encryption and the mathematics of how it is implemented.
The flyer states that the contextual prerequisite is “a basic understanding of high school math.” While this is generally true, the reality is that it should read, “a basic understanding of upper level high school math.” Even then, many of the readers with that background will struggle to understand the mathematics.
Nevertheless, this is a very good book when it comes to explanations of the role of encryption in the development and advancement of civilization, the history of mathematics as it is applied to encryption and the actual mathematics used to carry out the most common ciphers that were used. The explanations are understandable with the proper background or coaching and the examples are easy enough to follow. This is a book that can be read for recreation and enjoyment, it would have been fun if there had been some challenge puzzles for the readers to try to crack. To feed the little boy that is still in so many of us.