Reviewed
January 19, 2002.

A Sonderbooks' Best Book of 2002
(#2, Biographical Nonfiction)

Workman Publishing. 2001. 341 pages.

Available at Sembach Library (B FLA).

I loved this book. Mind you, I don’t know if anyone’s
who’s not a certified Math Nut would enjoy it as much, but for me,
it was absolutely delightful.

This is the story of a 17-year-old girl who won Ireland’s Young
Scientist of the Year and European Young Scientist of the Year awards
for a mathematical project involving cryptography. She developed
an algorithm for encoding text and showed that it is much faster than
the currently used standard. Although in the end, her algorithm
proved to be not as secure as the one she compared it with, she did
earn international acclaim.

I like the way she draws you into the book and the mathematical
ideas. It turns out that she got interested in math because of
her father (David Flannery, the co-writer of this book and a mathematics
professor). He would put puzzles up on the blackboard in the kitchen
for his kids to solve. (I laughed at the blackboard in the kitchen.
Now that’s a mathematician’s house!) She starts the book with some
examples of these puzzles. They are challenging, a lot of fun, and
get you ready for the ideas in cryptography that are to follow.

She continues with the ideas that go into her project in cryptography,
and how she got interested in it. I think that she presents the
material in an accessible way, although I can’t be sure, since it mostly
involved Number Theory, something I studied in college. (She does
tell you which chapters you can skip if you don’t like the mathematics!)

I’ve always thought it was a shame that Number Theory is only
studied by upper-division math majors. Number Theory deals with
integers, the numbers you learn on Sesame Street, plus their negatives.
No decimals. No calculus. No graphing. Many of the
basic concepts are so simple, even a small child could understand them.
In fact, I have a favorite story about that. When my oldest son
was in Kindergarten, he came home one day and said that their gym teacher
had divided the class into pairs. “I think our class is not congruent
to zero mod two,” he said. I was delighted, but my husband scolded
me. “Why couldn’t you have taught him ‘odd’ and ‘even’?”

Granted, the ideas she presents in this book go way beyond what
a five-year-old could understand, but I honestly don’t think you’d
need a huge math background to follow her argument--only a basic liking
for math and puzzles. She leads the reader gently through the train
of thought, as well as giving you a feel for what it’s like to be an instant
celebrity.

I did get some satisfaction out of the point she made that Number
Theory for centuries has been considered the most “pure” of all mathematics--that
is, the least applicable. However, in the 1970s, it became the
basis for modern cryptographic methods, and suddenly came into its own.
This pleased me because of all those annoying questions I got as a math
teacher, “How are we going to USE this?” I eventually came up with
my favorite answer-- “If you don’t learn it, I promise you’ll NEVER use
it.”

I did get a special little thrill at the very end of the book.
She included a copy of her award-winning paper. (I confess, I
only skimmed it.) At the end of that was a bibliography listing
eight items. One of these was a paper by Dr. Walt Stangl, the Biola
professor who taught me Abstract Algebra and Number Theory! Cool!

I must admit that this book made me wistful. What would
my life have been like if I had gotten a chance to work on something
like that at 17? I dropped out of a Mathematics PhD program when
I got married, and “settled” for a Master’s degree. At the time,
it didn’t seem worth the work for a degree that would condemn you to teaching.
(I ended up teaching college-level math for ten years, anyway. I
learned to like it, but was thrilled when we moved to Germany and I was
able to quit.) I wonder if my life would have changed if I had known
about this non-teaching field that uses a fascinating area of mathematics?

Anyway, it’s hard to imagine being happier with a job than I
am as a Library Technician at Sembach Library. So meanwhile, I’ll
feed the mathematical side of my mind with delightful books like this
one!

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund. All
rights reserved.

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