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University of Southampton Cipher Challenge enters its second phase

Published: 6 January 2003

On Monday 13 January 2003, the University of Southampton Cipher Challenge, an initiative which throughout the autumn attracted over 1200 young people from 330 schools throughout the UK, will enter its second phase.

The competition which was devised by the Department of Mathematics at the University of Southampton to involve more young people in mathematics and to increase its national appeal, allows participants to enhance their mathematical and problem-solving skills while learning about science and history, when they log on to the University of Southampton National Cipher Challenge website to establish the whereabouts of a 19th century revolutionary cipher machine.

The competition places mathematics in a scientific and historical context and challenges young people to crack a sequence of codes relating to a fictitious correspondence between three great scientists of the 19th century, Charles Babbage, Countess Ada Lovelace and Charles Wheatstone, as they search for the missing cipher machine that they have invented. The sequence of encoded messages is encrypted with successively stronger ciphers. With a total prize fund of £10,000-half going to schools to purchase learning materials in mathematics and science, the other half to the code breakers themselves-the competition offers entrants a real incentive to test their code-breaking skills.

Emails sent from participants and their teachers to the competition website highlight the enthusiasm which the first phase of the competition generated and report that many young people searched for internet access while on holiday abroad so that they could work on a code. Others happily took on the challenge as extra homework and some even found time to question dates and facts unearthed in the solutions.

Professor Adam Wheeler, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, who devised the competition with colleagues in the faculty, said: "It is wonderful that so many young people have already taken part in the Challenge. As well as being educational, it is great fun, and I believe it changes the image of mathematics with young people. It also challenges the common perception that mathematics is a hard abstract subject only accessible to a small elite. The competition itself is widely accessible over the internet to young people who want to enter."

The second phase of the competition which will be open to all young people of 18 years and under will begin on 13 January and will run until 21 April 2003, when the top prize of £1,800 will go to the first individual or team to crack the last and hardest cipher. The winner's school will also win the IBM Cipher Challenge School Prize, an IBM Thinkpad laptop computer.

The competition is sponsored by EPSRC, IBM and EducationGuardian.co.uk.

Notes for editors

  1. The winners will be invited to a prize giving ceremony to be held at Bletchley Park, home of the British World War II effort that broke the Enigma cipher, in May where TV presenter and author Adam Hart Davis will present the prizes after a popular lecture on code-breaking by Sarah Flannery, the young cryptographer and co-author of the best seller "In Code".
  2. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £235 million.
  3. Useful web sites for journalists www.today.soton.ac.uk - SotONLINE, the University of Southampton's daily electronic news service www.experts.soton.ac.uk - an A-Z guide of University experts

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