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Hundreds of young codebreakers get ready to take on National Cipher Challenge

Published: 
9 October 2003

For the second year running the University of Southampton is challenging young people across the UK to try their hand at cracking codes with its National Cipher Challenge, sponsored by the EPSRC, IBM, Bletchley Park and EducationGuardian.co.uk.

Over five hundred teams from across the UK had already registered to take part in this year's competition before it was launched, with a total of 500 young codebreakers ready to test their skills. With the first encrypted message now posted on the competition website, the organizers are expecting many more to follow suit.

The competition is designed to capture the enthusiasm of young people and to demonstrate the excitement of mathematics and computing. It is open to entries from schools, teams and individuals from around the country and last year attracted over 2,000 entries from more than 250 schools.

The prize fund is worth £5,000 and overall winners will be invited to a public prize-giving at Bletchley Park, where British codebreakers broke the German Enigma code in the Second World War.

The organiser of this year's competition is Dr Graham Niblo of the University of Southampton's Department of Mathematics. He comments: "It was said by Niels Ferguson, one of the leading cryptographers of his generation, that cryptography was "just about the most fun you can have with mathematics". We agree with that sentiment and hope that the Cipher Challenge will help to counter the frequent bad news about the decline in popularity of school mathematics."

The competition comprises a series of eight enciphered messages, forming part of the Journal belonging to the famous (and fictional) archaeologist Agatha Highfield, telling of her adventures as she tried to obtain the Babylon Stone, a legendary, and possibly cursed, tablet inscribed with Babylonian mathematics.

Frustrated by rivals and pursued by mysterious foreign agents she follows the only clue she has, recording her adventures in her (encrypted) diary. The first encrypted message is now on the competition website and further episodes will be released in the period leading up to Christmas. As the story unfolds the ciphers get harder to crack and the prizes get bigger.

Competitors will win prizes for fast and accurate decryptions of the pages of the Journal, and will be assisted throughout the adventure by Harry Schulz Vandiver, mathematician and private investigator, who will act as guide and mentor through the competition website. Competitors will also receive email feedback if they get stuck, helping them to find and correct their own mistakes.

Simon Singh, author of The Code Book, believes that the Cipher Challenge can inspire young people: "It shows how maths can be applied in the real world and generates a real excitement around the subject. The challenge also highlights how maths and cryptography is all around us, from Internet security to encrypting mobile phone calls," he says.

Last year's competition grabbed the attention of the participants with its unusual blend of adventure and mathematics, to the point where some participants found it hard to let go. As one participant's mother remarked: "Great competition-we even had to visit a New Forest pub to get Internet access during our half-term holiday!"

The competition web site can be found at www.maths.soton.ac.uk/cipher, and there is a teachers' pack which can be downloaded in pdf format at www.maths.soton.ac.uk/cipher/teacherspack.pdf, consisting of three lesson plans and a brief guide to codebreaking.

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