It’s hard to properly describe an event as “fun for all the family” when the family in question includes both a precocious pre-teen and a prominent postgraduate. However, part of the joy of the world of puzzles is that you can immerse yourself to as shallow or as complex a depth as you like; if some days you’re in the mood for one sort of fun, and on other days you’re in the mood for another, that’s perfectly fine. (This site is glad that challenges at the level of the World Puzzle Championship exist, but does not value difficulty above all other properties.) Having a single event cater for both ends of the spectrum is a remarkable requirement, but the University of Bath, in conjunction with the Further Maths Support Programme, are having as good a go as anyone with their Crytographic Challenge, for a bit of half-term fun.
The site poses three different cryptographic challenges at various levels of weight, each with four increasingly difficult enciphered messages to decode, plus a metapuzzle referred to as a finisher. The first level is genuinely accessible to primary-age kids and families, the second level seems to use techniques that you might find in the sundry secondary school cryptography challenges, and the gloves really come off for the third level. As far as this site can tell, the third level challenges use the principles of the more advanced techniques that you might find in somewhere like Simon Singh’s Code Book – though simpler examples of those techniques, for the codes are designed to be cracked by dedicated solo participants within a few days, rather than being a massively multiplayer (semi?-)co-operative game in the style of an ARG. The messages have titles that often hint at solution techniques; bonus points for all the duck references embedded throughout.
“You can try the challenges anytime online, but once decrypted they will generally give physical instructions about something on campus. You’ll need to report to Crypto HQ to officially validate your answers and be able to enter the competitions, but you can check answers online on the relevant Challenge page. We’ll have a Crypto HQ set up, and able to help out, in the 4 West building at the university, on Thursday 22 October, Friday 23 October, Monday 26 October, and Tuesday 27 October, 2015. Drop in between 10am and 4pm on these days. Our very own Professor Chris Budd OBE will share some of his encyclopaedic knowledge of cryptography and its background on Monday 26 October 2015, at 3pm in the Wolfson Lecture Theatre – 4 West.”
In a perfect world this post would have gone out at least one day earlier as one of the four check-in days has already gone and you’ve missed a lecture on Enigma and the Secret World of Code Breaking already. That said, it’s delightful to see outreach projects like this and this site wishes the University of Bath all the best of luck in this endeavour. It’s a completely different sort of attraction to that discussed yesterday, but the south-west has a lot going for it!