Cryptography is an art that has a rich history spanning over 2,000 years. It has evolved from simple letter swapping algorithms called transposition ciphers, to using a key to shift multiple letters in the text with the Vigenère cipher, to modern day symmetric-key cryptography that uses advanced mathematics. With this evolution the art has transformed itself into a science powered by mathematics.
The problem with cryptography is that it is extremely intimidating if you don’t already have a strong mathematical background. While I enjoy math I am far from a strong candidate in the subject. When I began to get really interested in the subject I started looking for a good book to break down the concepts into something easily understood and entertaining. While there are plenty of books that deal with the raw subject the one I’ve found that walks the reader through the history and explains both how the algorithms work and how to crack them is The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. It even has a section at the end of the book that challenges the reader to break the codes for several different types of algorithms.
It is hard to imagine that a book which dives into the mathematical properties of cryptography could be a fun read but somehow the authors nailed it. The first chapters start off explaining the basic forms of encryption and then build up to the advanced quantom cryptography that is being researched by some of the topped mathematicians. The challenges at the end of the book have their answers available online. When the book was published there was a challenge to see who could crack the codes first. After just over a year the prize was claimed. You can read about the challenge on the authors page, Simon Singh: Cipher Challenge.
If you have any interest in the subject I highly recommend picking up the book. After you complete the book you’ll have a great grasp on the subject and maybe an itch to dive even deeper.