Flannery: In Code

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Sarah Flannery, with David Flannery, In Code : A Mathematical Journey. New York : Workman Publishers, 2001. ix+ 341 pages, with appendices, bibliography, and index; illustrated with photographs.

This is a "memoir with mathematics" of Sarah Flannery, who won an Intel Excellence Award in 1998, (at the 1998 Irish Young Scientist Exhibition), the Irish Young Scientist award in 1999, and a European Union Young Scientist first-place award, also in 1999. Her project, in cryptography, included the invention of what she called the Cayley-Purser algorithm for cryptographic encoding and decoding, its implementation, and a mathematical analysis of its operation, efficiency, and security. Living in Cork, Ireland with her family, she was about 16 at the time.

She became a media sensation at the time; it was big news and something that captured the imagination of newspaper readers in Ireland and around the world. Why? Perhaps because Sarah has a very engaging personality, perhaps because cryptography sounds so recondite and distant from everyday experience, perhaps because headlines proclaimed that her discovery was certain to make her a millionaire. Whatever. We, the reader, can certainly be happy that the publicity is undoubtedly what led to the book contract under which Sarah wrote this remarkable book.

The blurb approach would say that this book is Sarah Flannery's personal telling of the story of her long road to winning the Young Scientist Awards. That's fine so far as it goes, I suppose, but it doesn't make the book sound nearly so interesting as it really is. There is personal story here and Sarah tells it simply, with a good chunk of suspense but only a little ego. A big part of the book, at the beginning, is what Sarah calls "early influences", in which she gives credit for her interest and facility with mathematics to the fun her father created for her and her brothers with continual mathematical puzzles on the chalkboard in their dining room.

Some readers may be intimidated by the discussion of the puzzles and then, later, the presentation of mathematical ideas at the core of cryptography, but Sarah offers at least two ways past that intimidation. One is her obvious enthusiasm for the ideas involved; she wants to share the fun she gets from thinking about these things with her readers and her enthusiasm is quite infectious. Second is that she really wants people to understand along with her—she's not out to impress and her explanations are clear and without extraneous complications. Overall I found her writing voice very engaging, even when she complained about the chore of actually writing it all down in this book!

Part of the success of a book meant as an introduction to a scientific topic lies in the author's ability to convey to the reader the thrill of personal discovery that comes when one is learning exciting new ideas. This book is a brilliant example of doing it very well.

Here she talks about the appeal of puzzles and then something more to the point and that the mathematically anxious reader needs to take to heart: reading mathematics is something that comes easily to very few people. Even people who are good at math (and science) need to read slowly and think about what they are reading when they read math and science, because it takes time to absorb the ideas that are being written about.

Puzzles, like humor, have a universal appeal and know of no boundaries—cultural, educational or otherwise. People of all ages and levels of education are attracted to the puzzle as they are to the joke. In a sense, there is an affinity between the two in that a vital ingredients of both is the element of surprise. No problem is worthy of the name "puzzle" if its solution is obvious, just as the joke whose punch line is easily anticipated is soon forgotten. The true puzzle should be accessible to all; its solution should require no special knowledge other than, at times, the rudiments of arithmetic and algebra. It is perhaps the unconscious feeling that we all start out equal that gives puzzles their charm.

Later, when the cryptographic project Dad mentioned in the foreword became the subject of media attention, someone asked me how I had the confidence to undertake something requiring an understanding of mathematics that many would think beyond the comprehension of secondary school students. I spontaneously replied that we were given puzzles at home on an almost weekly basis from an early age, unintentionally suggesting that this was the reason I didn't feel intimidated by mathematics. But, of course, this isn't entirely true: I'm intimidated by math the same way other people are, when they cannot make head or tail of what they're hearing or reading. It may be that this happens less often to me than to others as a result of thinking habits I acquired through puzzle-solving, but I have the same trouble as the other students whenever the math we're being taught is a little over our heads. The one thing I will say about Dad's giving of puzzles (which he continues to do to this day) is that by so doing neither he nor Mom prescribes boundaries on what they think we can or cannot do. [p. 30]

I don't want to sound stereotypical by suggesting that young people would benefit from reading this book because it was written by a young person, but I think it's true in this case. Sarah's writing inspires and informs; I expect it would be very useful if readers got to it before their own math anxieties developed, because reading it might very well get them past some of their own fears and lack of confidence.

-- Notes by JNS

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