The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I think anyone interested in cryptography and romance would like this book. It was a fun read to follow the adventures of Elizebeth Friedman, and how she became a code breaker. The beginning of the book described a research facility, and it made me think of what the Media Lab would have been like in the 1910s. The book is also about the love between two scientists, and how they developed their scientific principles together. I enjoyed decrypting the secret messages they shared. Although I was familiar with a lot of the ciphers discussed, it was great to hear about how they were solved given the resources they had at the time. I learned a lot of details about what went on in South America during WWII and also about how the FBI and CIA were formed.
Although the book makes a big deal about ESF not getting any credit for her part in the war, I think it was understandable given the chauvinsitic standards of her day and the need for secrecy of the methods during that time. I would hope that now that changed social standards and lessened need for secrecy would help us remember this important person.
Other things I learned, indirectly, are that love is all you need. For many years before and after they left their government jobs, she and her husband worked on their craft together. Being together helped them further their research and stand strong against those who aimed to use them. ESF was much more sensitive to that than her husband WFF, and I think that is one reason why WFF was a bit more unstable. ESF saw her role as a supporter and not as the only person who could do the job, making her take very different choices that I think made her happier in the end. They both did a lot of impressive work, but ESF was more able to walk away, to protect herself and her family.
It was good to read about people who were upstanding people doing the right thing, by being honest and modest in their work. They were always helpful to the people who needed them (their country, political rivals), didn't oversell their talents, and simply wanted to work. They were sensitive to others feelings -- they published their scientific treatise debunking the Baconian ciphers in Shakespeare only after the people who would be hurt by their document were long gone. I would totally recommend reading this book to get a sense of how principled academics behave compared to the self-aggrandizing promoters of research work. "Scientific results are reproducible using known methods to solve a problem." Above all, I loved that they enjoyed their work and each other so much. Its always wonderful to read about collaborators who help each other go further.
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