Bletchley Park Visit With Ben Davies

Mathematics is incredible. It describes the building blocks of life; it defines the intricacies of the physical world and its beauty constantly amazes the brightest of minds. It also holds an important place in the history of humankind. Testament to this is Bletchley Park; a beautiful country estate located on the outskirts of Milton Keynes with a fascinating history. It was at this setting that a significant part of the Second World War was played out, with the use of mathematics at its core.

On 8th December 2018, the IMA scholars descended upon Bletchley Park to immerse themselves in its unique history and to delve into the brilliance of the mathematics behind cryptography and the decryption of the Enigma machine.

I had the pleasure of attending and came away with a renewed fascination of mathematics and its uses.

My day started with a guided tour of the estate led by Michael Smith, Bletchley Park enthusiast and author of ‘Secrets of Station X’. The history of Bletchley Park was brought to life through Michael’s engaging stories. The role of mathematics, intertwined with the devastating tension of war, created a truly epic story. Espionage, cover-ups and the constant race against time to break encrypted messages all add to what is undoubtedly a great piece of British history. The story culminates in the brilliant problem-solving abilities of Alan Turing who enabled what seemed like an impossible endeavor to become reality through the creation of an electro-mechanical codebreaker named the ‘Bombe’, saving countless lives in the process. Michael ended the tour by saying that those at Bletchley Park are under no illusion that they single-handedly won the war; a claim that would severely undermine the bravery of those fighting and dying for their country. He went on to say, however, that the work of Bletchley Park was a major cog in the victorious war effort.

 Thomas Briggs, the learning manager at Bletchley Park, then led a session on the mathematics behind cryptography. Thomas’ love for mathematics and cryptography was infectious and this led to an engaging session during which the idea of modulo 26 was explored (creating a world in which 9 is the inverse of 3), while Pringles tubes were used to create manual Enigma machines; an activity that allowed for a deeper understanding of the inner-workings of the cryptographic machine.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the estate and reflecting on how this could all be used within the classroom. Cryptography enrichment sessions and a maths trip to Bletchley Park are certainly in the offing.

Ben Davies