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The University of Southampton

National Cipher Challenge celebrates record entries

Published: 16 January 2017
Children studying

Over 7,500 pupils from 800 schools across the UK have taken part in this year’s National Cipher Challenge, nearly doubling last year’s numbers.

Designed and run by Mathematical Sciences at the University of Southampton, the competition challenges secondary school and college pupils to break a range of difficult ciphers using their cunning and computing skills.

Professor Graham Niblo, Director of the competition, said: “The demand for mathematicians across industry and finance is growing every year and the competition is designed to attract more young people in to the field. The talent shown by the thousands taking part this year gives me huge confidence that the future is bright for the subject.”

Following a GCHQ-sponsored relaunch of the competition to mark its 15th anniversary, the winners of this year’s challenge have now been announced.

The storyline for Fighting Gravity was written in consultation with mathematical physicists at Southampton who were part of the extraordinary discovery of gravitational waves and told the story of a young scientist working in this exciting new field.

Gold and silver medallists won prizes sponsored by the University of Southampton, University of Cambridge, IBM and GCHQ. A further 89 team members from the top 10 teams won bronze medals.

The Gold Medal winner and recipient of the GCHQ Prize for Best Individual Code Breaker was Alex Barter of the Cotswold School in Gloucestershire, who received £1,000. Alex has taken part in the competition for the last four years and has fallen in love with cryptography. He has applied to study mathematics at university and runs his own website on breaking codes.

The Gold Medal and University of Southampton Mathematical Sciences Prize for Best Team Entry was awarded to Liam Zhou and Benjamin Dayan from Team Pebbles at Westminster School in London, who received £1,000. They said: “We've had a lot of fun doing the challenges together for a number of years. We’ve learnt a lot of cool stuff and have a bunch of code we wrote for the competition.”

The Silver Medal and Trinity College Cambridge Prize for Runner-up Individual Code Breaker was James Hogge from Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, who received £800. He said: “I have participated in the cipher challenge for the past three years in the code breaking club at school. I owe quite a lot to it because it has been something that has encouraged me to learn more about computing, which is what I hope to go on to study at a degree level. “… it’s maths and the sciences that I enjoy the most.”

The Silver Medal and IBM Prize for Runner-up Team Entry was awarded to Elliot Gathercole and Thomas Jackson from Team Amgine at Cedars Upper School in Bedfordshire who received £800. They said: “The challenge gave us a strong incentive to learn to program, and we add new programs to our collection of cipher breakers each year.

“… both of us are doing maths based Extended Project Qualifications this year. Mine is based on noughts and crosses, in four dimensions, whereas Elliot’s (influenced by the Cipher Challenge) is on quantum cryptography.”

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