The solution to a 200-year-old encryption

Jan 11, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The mathematician who deciphered the final, encrypted page of a letter sent to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 will visit the University of Oregon to tell how he did it.

The encrypted page -- a mystery to Jefferson and everyone else -- was solved in 2007 by Smithline, then 36, an expert in code-breaking. He detailed his solution in the American Scientist.

The letter was written by Jefferson's colleague in the American Philosophical Society, Robert Patterson, a math professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The ciphered page was devoid of capital letters or spaces and scrambled in a way that left no readable segments. Preceding pages had described the nature of the code but not the specific key required to unlock this message. The code was unlike any normally used at the time. Patterson predicted it would never be broken.

"This is a fascinating topic for historians as well as puzzle enthusiasts," says UO computer scientist Eugene Luks, who met Smithline in California, where Smithline described his solution to a group of cryptanalysts. "Jefferson, an expert cryptographer himself, was enthusiastic about the code. He recommended that it be used in diplomatic correspondence, but others did not appreciate his warnings about the weakness of the codes they were already using."

The solution involved both linguistic intuition and a to find the digital key. While the required 100,000 calculations would be easy on today's computers, Smithline's method could have been done over time in Patterson's day. In his talk, Smithline will tell how he was pulled into the mystery, how he broke the code and what was written on the page.

Lawren Smithline of the Center for Communications Research in Princeton, N.J., will speak at 4 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 26, in Room 100 of Willamette Hall, 1371 E. 13th Ave. Admission is free. The talk is part of the Distinguished Lecture Series of the UO's department of computer and and co-sponsored by the math department.

Explore further: John Nash, wife, 'A Beautiful Mind' inspiration, die in NJ

Related Stories

Microsoft program will return sound

Aug 13, 2009

Q. I recently removed the Roxio Easy Media Creator program from my Toshiba laptop, but I think the process also removed my system's sound. I've updated the system drivers, but when I check properties for the sound devices, ...

Researcher finds optimal fix-free codes

Apr 03, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- More than 50 years after David Huffman developed Huffman coding, an entropy encoding algorithm used for lossless data compression in computer science and information theory, an electrical ...

GSM system about to be compromised

Dec 08, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Research scientists in California and elsewhere are deliberately setting out to compromise the mobile phone system used by around three billion people. The system uses Global System for Mobile ...

Code breakthrough delivers safer computing

Sep 25, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Computer researchers at UNSW and NICTA have achieved a breakthrough in software which will deliver significant increases in security and reliability and has the potential to be a major commercialisation success.

Recommended for you

Top UK scientists warn against EU exit

May 22, 2015

A group of leading British scientists including Nobel-winning geneticist Paul Nurse warned leaving the European Union could threaten research funding, in a letter published in The Times newspaper on Friday.

How we discovered the three revolutions of American pop

May 22, 2015

Dr Matthias Mauch discusses his recent scientific analysis of the "fossil record" of the Billboard charts prompted widespread attention, particularly the findings about the three musical "revolutions" that shaped the musical la ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.