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An Interview with James Grime

Dr. James Grime will visit Alternative Party 2011 on Saturday evening, 22nd of October at the Cable Factory. He will talk about the history of code breaking and as a part of the show, demonstrate an authentic Enigma. Kim Viljanen interviewed James Grime prior his trip to Helsinki.

1. Dr. James Grime, please introduce yourself

I'm a mathematician from the University of Cambridge - but don't worry. I'm very nice. And as part of my job I travel the world giving talks about mathematics, in particular the fascinating history of codes and secret messages. And when I'm not doing mathematics, lecturing or given talks to the public - I make videos about maths and other sillly things on YouTube. All that fills my time nicely!

James Grime and the Enigma.

2. How and why did you get interested in the Enigma?

I think all little boys and girls are interested in codes and secret messages at some point. They're so much fun! Spies, secrets, espionage! And Enigma is the most famous cipher machine of all time. The breaking of the enigma cipher is heroic - but it wasn't about fighting, it was about using your brains. That's inspriring to a young geeky guy as myself. The mathematics behind it is very close to the mathematics I love, which makes it even more fascinating for me when I discover the details of what the World War II code breakers did. I like to think I would have been one of them if I had been around at the time.


3. A turning point of the Second World War was the breaking of the Enigma. How was it done?

The Enigma cipher was originally broken by the Polish mathematicians - even before the Second World War began. The British, and later with the Americans, continued that work. However, after the Germans made some changes to their procedures, the methods the Polish were using stopped working. So the British needed another way in. What they found exploited a flaw in the machine itself, Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman then built a large code breaking machine called 'Bombe'. These machines were built in secret, specifically to find enigma settings, and this had to be done every day. The Germans thought Enigma was unbreakable - what that really meant was, as far as the Germans were concerned, the technology did not exist to break Enigma. They did not know about the Bombe machines. You can say the same about today's codes, they're not unbreakable, it is simply that the technology does not exist to break them - yet...

4. What do you consider to be the most important invention of the Enigma?

Historical codes meant using the same code for the whole message. This meant you could work out things like what was the most common letter by looking for the most common symbol in the code. That was a clue that helped the code breaker. At the beginning of the 20th century it had become possible to mechanise codes, these machines now used a different code for every letter of the message - it was constantly changing. So, the same letter might be encrypted two different ways, depending on if it appeared at the beginning of the code or the end of the code. Enigma does this too. But what set Enigma apart was how small and portable the machine was.


Photo of a Bombe, Bletchley Park.

5. If you would have been an German engineer in the 1930s developing the Enigma device or the way it was used by the military, what would you have done otherwise?

There was a flaw in the machine. Enigma was very clever, but what it did was turn the 26 letters of the alphabet into 13 pairs. So for example, the letter 'a' and the  letter 'w' might be a pair, so if I press 'a' I get 'w', and if I press 'w' I get 'a'. This was a flaw because it meant a letter was never paired with itself, in other words an 'a' could be anything - except 'a'. That was the clue to breaking the code. It wasn't a big clue, but it was just enough. So when Britain decided to make a code machine, they looked at Enigma and stole the idea. The British machine was called Type X. It was different in two ways, it didn't have the flaw - sometimes a letter could become itself. The other difference, unlike Enigma, the Type X machine printed on paper!

6. Alan Turing is considered to be the father of computer science, but his life ended much too early. Please tell us about Turing’s life after Enigma.

The story of Alan Turing's death is tragic. He was a gay man at a time when it was illegal to be gay. When this was discovered, Alan lost his job at Manchester University and was put on hormone treatment in an attempt to 'cure' him. And in the end Alan committed suicide at the age of 42. Only later in life did he get interested in studying aspects of biology through mathematics. So who know what he would have done next.

7. How important do you consider breaking the Enigma was for the development of computer science?

The developments during the war, including missile technology, RADAR, and the advances in computing were immense. The war was certainly a driving force for these innovations, which we continue to benefit from today.


8. What will you show consists of in Helsinki on October 22nd at the Alternative Party 2011?

I'll be giving a talk, starting with a history of code breaking. From the types of messages used thousands of years ago by the ancient Greeks, leading up to the Second World War and Enigma. With me I will have an Enigma Machine and will give a live demonstration of the machine, how it worked, and how the code was eventually broken! There will be stories of spies and secrets. Alt Party may be a tech-savvy audience, but this will be a talk for everyone. With luck we may be able to give people a closer look after the talk, I can't let people touch it, but feel free to bring a camera!

9. There are many different versions of the Enigma device. What exact device will you be presenting?

The Enigma Machine I will be demonstrating is an army enigma machine found in France. It belong to a man called Simon Singh, who is an author of popular science books - including The Code Book, which is all about the history of codes. Simon owns it privately, it doesn't belong to a museum, but Simon loans it to the University of Cambridge (and therefore to me) to that I can show it off at events like these. It is antique, and rare, so I have special permission to bring it to Helsinki.

10. Who is your show targeted for?

Everyone is welcome. Tech-folk or non-tech-folk, fans of history, mathematics, computing or just people who want a chance to see one of the most famous cipher machines of all time. It doesn't matter if you are young or old. It is a story that fascinates us all.

12. What is the number one reason that inspires you to travel around with the ENIGMA?

People may have the idea that mathematics is a dry or dull subject. We want to show people one of the most exciting, interesting, exotic uses of mathematics.

13. This is not your first time in Finland, is it? How do you feel about being invited back once again?

I have visited Helsinki before. Last year I did a little tour of Finland, where I showed off the Enigma Machine in several cities. I'm happy to be invited back! I hope people will enjoy it as much as they did last year!

James Grime, thank you for the interview. See you in Helsinki at Alternative Party 2011!

Read also: article on Enigma and James Grime (in Finnish)

See also: -- the Enigma Project
Photo source: Millennium Mathematics Project and Wikipedia.