Cryptologist Talks About Codes and Code Breaking to Teens

High schoolers attending the University of California, Davis-hosted MathFest 2009 evening will be hearing from a cryptologic mathematician with the National Security Agency. David Perry will give a public talk about the history of codes and code-breaking and especially the "unbreakable" Enigma code machine used by Germany in World War II.

Mathfest 2009 is an event for high-schoolers and their parents celebrating math and its role in everyday life.

"We really want to get youngsters and their parents interested in math, and how it comes up in so many different things," said Monica Vazirani, professor of mathematics at UC Davis and an event organizer. "There's much more to math than you see in the classroom."

People use encryption, for example, every time they enter a password or a credit card number on a computer. By revealing the math that lies behind everyday life, Mathfest organizers hope to show career opportunities open to graduates with a mathematics degree.

In his talk, Perry will explore the history of cryptology from 2,000 years ago through the mid-20th century and the design principles that went into the Enigma code machine.

Perry received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999 and taught at Ripon College in Wisconsin for two years before joining the National Security Agency. Every summer, he teaches a three-week course in cryptology for the Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth program.

During the course, Perry said he spends at least 15 minutes trying to convince his teenage students that he's not trying to recruit them, does not, in fact, have a chip in his head, and that the black helicopters that seem to appear daily above the campus are a coincidence.

Mathfest 2009 is sponsored by the National Science Foundation through a Vertical Integration of Research and Education in the Mathematical Sciences (VIGRE) grant and the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS).

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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