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Southampton scientists challenge young codebreakers to a new Cipher Challenge

Published: 
25 September 2003

Once again 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 and Bletchley Park. The competition has a prize fund of £5,000 and overall winners will be invited to a public prizegiving in the Spring at Bletchley Park, where British codebreakers broke the German Enigma code in the Second World War.

The competition is designed to capture the enthusiasm of young people and to demonstrate the excitement of mathematics and computing. The Challenge 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.

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."

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!"

With a poster campaign reaching out to over 4,000 schools and colleges across the UK this year's competition is expected to attract even more entries.

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 will be published on the competition website at 4pm on Thursday 2nd October and further episodes will be released over 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.

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.

Niels Ferguson, one of the leading cryptographers of his generation described cryptography as 'Just about the most fun you can have with mathematics'. The organisers of the National Cipher Challenge agree and hope that the competition will help to counter the frequent bad news about the decline in popularity of school mathematics.

Notes for editors

  1. A digital image of the Cipher Challenge poster is available from Sarah Watts.
  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.

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