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The University of Southampton

Southampton maths experts invite young code breakers to help Harry solve mystery

Published: 3 September 2004

In the USA in 1937 the FBI discover an envelope of encrypted papers in the wreckage of the German airship Hindenberg. Unable to crack the code, they call in top private investigator and mathematician Harry Schultz Vandiver for help. As Harry begins to unravel the codes, the secret of a German weapons' project is revealed and it appears the fire might not have been an accident.

This is the intriguing opening scenario set out in the University of Southampton's third National Cipher Challenge, an on-line code-breaking competition which offers a prize fund of £10,000 for schools and individuals.

This year's Challenge will be formally launched on Monday 6 September at the British Association's Festival of Science in Exeter by Simon Singh, broadcaster and author of best-seller The Code Book, a history of codes and code breaking. The dedicated Cipher Challenge website will also be live from that date.

The competition begins in earnest on 30 September when the first of a series of coded challenges devised by University experts is posted on the website. A sequence of ten encrypted messages will be published between September 2004 and January 2005. The messages comprise excerpts from the journal kept by fictitious private eye Harry Schultz Vandiver as he investigates the mystery of the 'Die Alchemisten' weapons' project. As Harry's investigation continues, the ciphers become harder to crack and the prizes get bigger.

The overall aim of the Challenge is to inspire and enthuse young people about mathematics, enabling them to develop their mathematical and problem-solving skills while racing to unscramble the increasingly difficult ciphers.

Organiser Dr Graham Niblo of the University of Southampton's School of Mathematics, explains: "With so much bad news around about the decline in popularity of mathematics, our popular competition is an innovative way of generating fun and excitement around the subject of maths. But there's a serious aspect to it too and in that sense it's more than just a competition. Through cracking these codes, we hope to encourage young people to get really involved in maths, science and engineering and to understand their importance and relevance to our everyday lives."

He continues: "By taking part, young code-breakers will learn how cryptography developed, and how it links in with related science and technology, as well as some cultural and political history. I hope it will also help set maths in a real world context: cryptography is all around us - from Internet security to encrypting mobile phone calls."

Last year's Challenge, with its stimulating blend of adventure and mathematics, inspired almost 3000 pupils from 520 schools to take part and even more are expected to enter this year as a poster campaign is launched in schools across the country.

Prizes will be awarded for fast and accurate decryptions of Harry's journal entries. Half of the £10,000 prize money will be awarded to schools to buy mathematics and science learning materials, while the other half will go to top individual code breakers. Feedback via email will also be available for competitors who get stuck, so that they can work out the correct solutions to the ciphers.

The Challenge is open to young people under the age of 18 years who are in full-time education in the UK. Entries may be from schools, individuals or from teams. For more information log on to

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

  1. You are invited to attend the launch of the University of Southampton's third National Cipher Challenge at 12.30pm on Monday 6 September at the BA Festival of Science at the University of Exeter.
  2. The Cipher Challenge prizes are sponsored by IBM; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Government code-breaking division, and the School of Mathematics at the University of Southampton. Bletchley Park and are partners in the Cipher Challenge.
  3. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University has over 19,200 students and 4,800 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £250 million.
  4. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) Festival of Science takes place in Exeter 4 - 11 September.
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