One Week In
So my PGCE has started and I am celebrating with a bleary eyed trip to Birmingham for
the first maths teacher scholars event. It follows a long first week in University, but the day starts well. I meet up on the train with fellow scholars, discussing how our first week has gone, and the venue comes up trumps with its breakfast. By the time of the first session, my early morning wake up is long forgotten.
For the first session, I sit down and notice a large brown wooden box next to me. On closer inspection, I see a strange assortment of an old-fashioned keyboard, some rotors and a lampboard. The German writing on the back gives it away, I am looking at an original Enigma machine from World War II. Our first speaker, Tom Briggs, is from Bletchley Park and sure enough he confirms what I thought. Tom explains it is not the machine used in the recent film, ‘The Imitation Game’, as this is being used by one of his colleagues, so it hasn’t been touched by Benedict or Keira. But that isn’t important to me, seeing the Enigma machine conjures up images in my mind of slightly nerdy mathematicians working round the clock to crack the Enigma code, design computers and save us from defeat to the Nazis. Surely saving the world is a good enough answer next time a student asks you why they need to learn mathematics!!
Tom takes us through a short history of cryptography, highlighting in Roman times that Caesar’s approach may have been simplistic, but with largely illiterate enemies he was on fairly safe ground. It seemed obvious once Tom had explained it, but any method by which you translate one letter to another can be cracked simply by looking at typical letter count; we love to use the letter ‘e’ in English, so can normally spot this letter and similarly work out other often used letters.
The pace of progress with cryptography has picked up rapidly in recent times, with the Enigma machine the best known example of producing a code based on a huge number of possible settings. Having introduced the complexity of an Enigma machine, Tom then held up an empty tin of Pringles and explained that we could make our own Enigma machine! Sure enough, after a bit of cutting and sticking the whole room had succeeded in making their own Enigma machine and deciphering the code. Not bad for a morning’s work.
With a three course lunch to come and two more sessions in the afternoon, the bar had been set high for an enjoyable and practical program of events during my year as a maths scholar.
- By Francis Edwards