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?
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.