Jim Lyons has returned to battle against the unsolved Feynman Ciphers: but this time round he’s wondering whether one or more might employ some variant of the Hill cipher.

It’s possible but… given the fact that #1 was a straightforward transposition of Chaucerian English, I don’t honestly buy into the idea that the others will prove to be cryptographically exotic.

To my mind, whoever set the first cipher seems (if the much-repeated back story itself is not itself a jest) to have been far more interested in snickering into his beard about having pulled the wool over Richard Feynman’s sainted eyes than proving his depth of cryptographic reading. I’d agree he could conceivably have wheeled out a Hill + substitution cipher crypto mechanism, but surely the meta-point of the whole exercise was that it was supposed to be a Los Alamos in-joke at Feynman’s expense?

Los Alamos

The Feynman Ciphers surfaced on Usenet in 1987 while Feynman was still alive (though he died in 1988), so it seems fairly unlikely to me that these were composed then. Hence it seems likely to me, on the balance of probability, that they did come from his time at Los Alamos: perhaps someone who was there with Feynman might remember?

There’s a nice page full of Feynman’s reminiscences of his time there 1943-1945, but that didn’t immediately answer the question.

All the same, this quickly led mw to the very watchable Memoir of Los Alamos in World War II with Murray Peshkin on YouTube. Given that Peshkin worked with Feynman and is still very much alive, I thought it worth a shot asking if he remembered the appearance of any ciphers. So I emailed him. 🙂 His response:

This is the first I hear of the Feynman ciphers. Of course I looked the question up, but nothing I saw related to anything of which I know.

Sorry not to be helpful

Oh well… if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.

The British Mission

However, given that the plaintext to the first Feynman Cipher was from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it also struck me that the encipherer might well have been British. There was a sizeable British Mission at Los Alamos: the British had been working on an atomic research programme codenamed ‘Tube Alloys’ for some time, so had a bit of a head-start in the whole blowing-up-the-world race thing.

I couldn’t find a reasonable list of the British Mission personnel online, so decided to put one together: and here it is. If you have better biographies or links for any of the unlinked scientists, please let me know and I’ll update them here.

The British Mission to Los Alamos:
* James Chadwick (head of the mission)
* Egon Bretscher
* Boris Davison
* Anthony P. French
* Otto Robert Frisch
* Klaus Fuchs
* James Hughes
* Derrik J. Littler
* William G. Marley
* Donald G. Marshall
* Philip Burton Moon
* Rudolf Ernst Peierls
* William George “Bill” Penney
* George Placzek
* Michael J. Poole
* Joseph Rotblat
* Harold Sheard
* Tony Hilton Royle Skyrme (after whom skyrmions are named)
* Geoffrey Ingram Taylor
* Ernest W. Titterton
* James Leslie Tuck

And The #1 British Mission Scientist Linked To Feynman Was…

Klaus Fuchs: when Feynman’s wife was dying of tuberculosis, he borrowed Fuchs’ car to drive to her side at speed. Yes, Fuchs was a Communist who later admitted giving nuclear secrets to the Russians (and so went to jail). And despite being German, he spent a lot of time working in Edinburgh etc, so almost certainly was ‘Britainized’ to a large degree.

But did he make up the Feynman Challenge Ciphers? I don’t know. There were many other bachelors living in the Big House at Los Alamos: Fuchs and Feynman were just two.

Perhaps hints towards the answer will lie in one of the many autobiographies from the people involved, such as “Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist” (Rudolf Peierls), or “What Little I Remember” (Otto Frisch): or indeed in Ferenc Morton Szasz’s British Scientists and the Manhattan Project: The Los Alamos Years.

21 thoughts on “The British Mission to Los Alamos and the Feynman Ciphers…

  1. In 1987, a Caltech professor named Richard Feynman was given three samples of code by a colleague. Only one was ever solved.

  2. xplor: are you feeling ok? You’ve come over all Wikipedia-ish. 😮

  3. .  Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Pelling, Richard loved puzzles and the ciphers were to cheer him up as he was dying of cancer.

  4. xplor: …and your source is?

  5. If I have to spell it out . Explore.
     Ten of the Los Alamos scientists latter worked at Caltech .The Ciphers could have been written by Bob Christy..

  6. xplor: then I’m sure you also know that the list of “Los Alamos scientists it could have been” runs to several hundred names, of which Robert F. Christy was just one. I know the Caltech link to Feynman well, but where should I be looking for actual evidence?

  7. I found it looking into Robert Christy and Richard Feynman. Interesting why Richard did not want to work on the Orion project.

  8. Megolego on January 28, 2015 at 10:29 am said:

    I’m sure this has been suggested by others before me, but would it be possible create a cypher from the zodiacal depictions in the large fold out page. For instance the characters of the zodiac could represent letters and/or numerical values then layer the other drawings like those turn dial cyphers or the Mayan calendar? I mean the artist seemed to have included drawings that when spin round make a moving picture.

  9. Was he invited?

  10. I mean – I should have thought that an American government would just announce to a person that they were co-opted “in the national interest” or some such phrase.

  11. [[[Description of Feynman Ciphers copied from elsewhere on Internet, so removed]]]

  12. xplor: all that and more has been on my site for years. Right now, I’m guessing that you don’t have anything apart from speculation… but is that wrong?

  13. Canterbury Tales prologue – weird choice. Weird sender. Feynman – assuming he did receive these himself – would surely be doing the right thing passing them to the students’ common room. Word gets about, and so so would surely make clear that feynman had no reason to think the messages contained sensitive material of the political or scientific sort.

    Too weird. I expect they’ll turn out to be increasingly less-oblique fan letters.

  14. .
    Only what I could find about Chris Cole and Jack C. Morrison. Richard had his first cancer operation in early1979. . He also recieved ciphers from his father and wife at los Alamos that had no keys acording to him. It is all speculation .

  15. What can we learn from the puzzles themselves? Morrison found the first written by the father of English Literature. Does that mean they were written by a educated englishman or could the first puzzle have been taken from a copy of Canterbury tales in the libary of the old upscale boys school.
    Could it be a spy just practicing his or her trade craft ?

  16. I think the real issue is that Feynman, employed as he was and where he was would not *want* persons unknown sending him messages in cipher – in his position, would you?

  17. Richard Feynman loved to tell stories of breakng in to other scientists files. Who is to say he didn’t perloin it. Maybe someone was tired of him trying to show how smart he was and said :Here try and solve this.

  18. Lester S. Hill’s cipher was not widly known until after the war. It looks like the U.S.Navy was using it.

    It is good that Jim Lyons is looking at older ciphers like the Morse..Could John von Neumann, Donald (moll) Flanders, Stanislaw Ulam or Stan Frankel have cranked out a hill cipher on a Marchant calculator ?

  19. The Army sent it best and brightest to Los Alamos. The Special Engineer Detachment made up over 1/3 of the people working on the project there. It is possible some of them had used and still had the M-94 cipher wheel. General Groves had his own quadratic code, See Khan Codebreakers.

  20. bdid1dr on March 14, 2015 at 3:27 pm said:

    Was Brigadier General Tiltman involved in any of the decipherment efforts (which also included the so-called “Voynich” manuscript)?
    Is the ‘Marchant calculator (being mentioned by Xplor) possibly be a product made by the company later called “Smith-Corona-Marchant?

  21. xplor on March 15, 2015 at 1:28 am said:

    Do you remember them? rows and rows of buttons and a handle on the side. Smith-Corona merged with Marchant in 1958.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation