Tales From the Crypt(ographers)

This is weekly blogpost series by our intern Lily Bui. She writes about radio, technology, and more.

Your alphabet soup is talking to you. (All right, maybe not.)

Sometimes our minds play tricks on us and reveal patterns that may or may not be intentional. Human beings are verifiably adept at pattern recognition. We tend to pick up trends in letters, numbers, sounds, and colors. Some of us are more keen on picking up these patterns than others. The truly masterful venture into cryptography.

This week, I bring you a two-part episode from How Stuff Works: Stuff You Missed in History Class: Part 1: Axis Cryptography and Part 2: Allied Cryptography. Sarah Dowdey and guest co-host Jonathan Strickland talk about World War II cryptography and the technology that makes it possible to both encode and decode messages. Listen to learn about the Enigma Machine, which confounded scientists, cryptologists, and military personnel alike before Alan Turing came along. These two episodes also chronicle the Code Talkers, who manipulated the Native American languages Comanche and Choctaw to create a code language that troops could use to communicate confidential information during the World Wars.

We may not think of code as something we encounter in our everyday lives, but the exact opposite is true. By simply having a conversation with someone, we encode information in a language (that our conversation partner also knows) which is then transmitted to the other person, then decoded by their brains into a meaningful message. When we send e-mails, the messages we send are encrypted (scrambled) before they are sent, then decrypted (unscrambled) when they are received for secure delivery. Our digital lives are brimming with examples of cryptography–from QR codes to PIN numbers to passwords. It’s practically everywhere. Now, if you start apophenically deciphering messages in your alphabet soup, I’ll have to absolve myself from the blame.

Still curious about code? Mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing’s (would-be) 100th birthday is this year. If you have some extra time, check out this RadioLab piece about his life and play with the Google Doodle version of the Enigma Machine.

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