Grokking the Enigma

Days to Centenary: 246

The term “grok” comes from the novel Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.  The novel’s own definition of grok is as follows:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

It might be permissible to say that Alan Turing grokked the Enigma, the encoding/decoding device used by the German military during World War II.  Probably the closest any of us mortals will come to reproducing his experience will come from reading the Enigma web page mounted by Erik Vestergaard, a Danish mathematician and high school math teacher.

The Enigma plugboard

The Enigma plugboard

The site is full of useful information, but so is a corporate prospectus — that doesn’t make them a great read.

Luckily the site is also lively and well illustrated and provides clear explanations of how the Enigma worked and how its codes were broken by Turing and company.  And when an explanation isn’t enough, the page has vivid diagrams that help the reader understand what’s going on.

An encryption diagram from the page

An encryption diagram from the page

And for those who are upset by the fact that Turing’s renown often means that his predecessors in Poland — who worked out early Enigma cracks — are overlooked, the page has an extensive section on Marian Rejewski and the Poles.  This includes links to pdfs of mathematical papers on the methods used by Rejewski and his compatriots.

Marian Rejewski

Marian Rejewski

Finally, Vestergaard took his students on a trip to Bletchley Park in 2007 and his photographs not only provide a homelier view of the place than one gets on many other web sites, but it gives us a glipse at just how badly in need of repair this historic site is.  As I recently wrote, the site has just been awarded funds by the Heritage Lottery for a major reconstruction project, but the Bletchley Park Trust must raise over a million pounds on its own before it can access the lottery funds.  You might want to think about making a small donation so that the Trust can reach its fundraising goal and unlock the endowment it needs.

Hut 6 at Bletchley Park, photographed during Vestergaard's class trip

Hut 6 at Bletchley Park, photographed during Vestergaard's class trip

For a well rounded introduction to the historical role and the functioning of the Enigma machine that presented such a challenge to Allied codebreakers, I have found no better resource than this page.

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